I ended my last post by imagining an alternative sort of criticism, one that primarily shows rather than attempts to explain and so amounts to an art form. This could describe the approach of Steve Goodman (Kode9) and Kodwo Eshun in the paper they presented at the hardcore continuum seminar, which facilitated appreciation by describing musical characteristics yet steering clear of potentially (or inevitably) controversial theoretical explanations. With attention to the notion of synesthesia, Kode9 and Eshun set out almost to translate certain hallmark features in the music they discussed into visual, linguistic, kinetic, tactile, organic and behavioural constructs, and did so using gleefully descriptive language, effectively recording a body of aesthetic experience and suggesting it as a listening guide. They called their approach ‘magnified listening’, a concept which presents an intriguing and fitting model for criticism. The talk was fantastic and well-received, and I do hope the full text of it will be available sometime soon.
As ‘wonky’ (also known as ‘w***y’ - I’d suggest ‘the music formerly known as wonky’) is one of the main fronts in the aesthetic-generational value war that rages on, I thought I might try out some of that ‘magnified listening’ on the music involved to find out what can be described as going on in it with a view to exploring the sorts of aesthetic significance (value, if you like) that it can afford. More than just an exercise in appreciation, this could shed some light on differences among the value-judgement criteria that pull the strings in discourse of/on UK popular music (that is, popular in production rather than destination) and put ‘wonky’s’ adherents and detractors into a cultural and ideological context.
The name ‘wonky’ was coined by Martin Clark in April 2008 (follow the link for further details on the who and what of ‘wonky’) as a ‘theme’ rather than a conventional genre, and like most labels of its kind has been received with sharp ambivalence and rejected by some the artists involved. I don’t believe the name entirely deserves the ire it has often been met with, but I can respect the aversion of many producers to the term, most notably Kode9 given his passion for a range of subtle and unconventional dubsteps. One could argue that rhythmically at least the term is accurate, though it can sound mildly reductive, disparaging even. Nevertheless the name has stuck, and since someone has set up a wikipedia article for it we are now in the process of having to learn to live with it, so if only for the sake of grudging convenience I’m using it here in scare quotes. Other interesting and highly appropriate terms that have come up for the various acts ‘wonky’ describes include ‘post-dubstep’, ‘new-school dubstep’ (Martin Clark),‘ aquacrunk’ (Scottish producer Rustie – for the purposes of this study I'm considering aquacrunk a slightly seperate movement and I think many people would agree), and (my favourite) ‘psych-dubstep’.
Wonkification as avant-garde procedure
Perhaps the most eloquent apologist for ‘wonky’ has been Alex Williams in a series of posts on his Splintering Bone Ashes blog in February this year, where he describes it as:
a trans-generic mutational agent, spreading seamlessly between bpm species, liquidating textures, distending rhythmical consistency like so much manipulable sonic sticky toffee: All that is solid melts into a new electronic psychedelia,… fluid and mellifluous,… wonky detournes pre-existing genres… corroding the arid grid-like bass kick / snare matrix into something closer to the handmade asymmetrical anti-rhythms of Burial, pushing the shuffled culminating and accelerating sensual textural play towards a surrealist fairground of Dali-esque percussive effect.A month later, with a comment that ‘wonky’ producer Zomby himself felt ‘works’, Simon Reynolds memorably depicted two of Zomby’s tracks as ‘like someone’s taken the monochrome diagram of dubstep’s rhythmic grid and scrawled woozily all over it in fluorescent marker pens.’
These detailed, poetic analogies closely describe not just an experience of ‘wonky’, but significantly its corrupting relationship to the more conventionalised genres that it sprang from. That this process of ‘wonkification’ is described as ‘psychedelic’ is particularly telling – I’m reminded of an experiment by the US government in the late 50s (more detail than this I can’t find), in which an artist was given LSD and asked to produce a series of pencil portraits:
Evidently representational art under psychedelic influence is oddly reminiscent of the advancement of European modernist figurative painting in the early decades of the twentieth century (though admittedly we can’t be sure that knowledge of such painting didn’t affect the results of the experiment). The ‘wonkification’ process described by Williams and Reynolds has a lot in common with avant-garde processes in both the music and art of the early twentieth century. In painting, modernism had a psychedelic effect on contemporary conventions of naturalistic figuration: forms and colours became more approximate and were progressively warped into lurid mockeries of convention for sensuous, expressive, spatial and kinetic effect. The older, conventional paintings and their subjects do indeed seem to melt or undergo some sort of chemical reaction in the pigment as avant-garde conditions set in. Certain established conventions in classical music underwent similar treatment as common practice tonality was increasingly stretched to the point of irrelevance, old timbres appeared in weird new combinations and irregular, complex rhythms made performers’ lives a lot more difficult. We know that this sort of thing frequently, even inevitably happens to conventionalised music genres (you might call them ‘little modernisms’, each one of them being slightly different in nature), to the point where ‘avant-’ has become a recurring prefix in musical taxonomy, and it’s not something that’s unique to the twentieth century either. You’ll need to know a little bit about fourteenth-century polyphonic song before you can really appreciate the ars subtilior composers of Avignon and Paris and how they wonked up the conventions of their time, but some of the parallels with ‘wonky’, particularly when it comes to metrical innovation and the fuss over labels, are quite startling (and one of them’s called Guido...).
Is ‘wonky’ avant-garde music, some sort of new, little modernism? Funnily enough, this has been claimed for the music in certain places, and its relatively widespread popularity is particularly intriguing in this context as it’s something heard in clubs and mixes rather than (as is more usually the case) alone at home after a lengthy mail order adventure finally gets the latest experimental sounds through the letterbox. Until recently, the headline on Zomby’s myspace was ‘Avant-garde… not wonky’, and one of the comments on Reynolds’s ‘Feeling WonKy’ Guardian blogpost, written by one Maya808, had a particularly, almost textbook modernistic tone:
Mr Reynolds’s article is disrespectful and highlights a significant lack of research or understanding of the music scene he is so confidently generalising. He clearly has not got the capacity to embrace the music created by these modern visionaries and if anything calling it ‘wonky’ simply highlights this lack of appreciation. If dwelling into experimental and abstract music waters is too challenging for Mr Reynolds he should simply stick to what he feels comfortable in. Was Picasso ‘wonky’? Is fusion jazz ‘wonky’?I would argue, I have above, that Picasso was indeed a little bit wonky – in many cases his forms are quite literally wonky versions of conventional figuration, but what Maya808 is expressing of course is that Picasso wasn’t merely ‘wonky’ in the sense of ‘wrong’, ‘flawed’ or under the influence of drugs. Though the response isn’t entirely fair to Reynolds or his article, this sort of reaction to it, or reaction to a perception of it, is very revealing. For some, and most notably one of its key producers, Zomby, there is a feeling that ‘wonky’ is an avant-garde movement.
Admittedly, the club scene always has and will have parallels with substance abuse but simultaneously dragging in genius producers like Zomby, Hudson Mohawke and Joker and even Hyperdub – one of the finest most adventurous record labels of today is shameful. Abstraction and experimental doesn’t instantly imply drug abuse… Einstein, Stockhausen, Da Vinci… all junkies? Must have been. (emphasis is mine)
At this stage in the history of popular music there are quite a few examples of relatively avant-garde movements within broader popular categories, or at least a lot of relatively ‘strange’ sub-genres. Indeed at first listen, a lot of ‘wonky’ sounds distinctly strange. Listen for a little bit longer or find out a little bit more however, and ‘wonky’s’ various surfaces could afford a range of superficial, even unfortunately dismissive reactions.
First time listeners to five seconds of any track on Zomby’s Zomby EP or Ikonika’s ‘wonky’ singles may notice an uneasy sense of déja vu take hold – for ‘wonky’ could potentially be heard, unfairly, as very much in the shadow of ‘New Rave’ or recent satirical depictions of fool’s music because of the electro-like timbres, atonalities and irregular rhythms they employ. Though it was based on the London trendy media zeitgeist of a few years before (and possibly also electroclash), Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris’s 2005 satirical TV comedy series Nathan Barley now seems oddly prescient in light of the explosion of New Rave in 2007. I remember witnessing a young lady wearing a speak-and-spell and a bawdily defaced My Little Pony around her neck at a gig that summer (we were there to see 8 bit monster Sportsday Megaphone and neon hipsters Bolt Action Five at a 90s children’s nostalgia night called ‘glo-ball hypercolour’ or some such). The uncomfortably close-to-home satire of Barley is a thorn in the side of publications such as Super Super (which was founded at and as the dawn of New Rave), and bands like Trash Fashion seemed as if they were hoaxes perpetrated by Chris Morris himself. The sound-world of Nathan Barley - trite, crudely satirical hedonistic rapping and arrhythmic, infantile toy synthesiser nonsense, also the sound-track for addicts to bizarre narcotics in Morris’s Brass Eye episode ‘Drugs’ – tempts us to read New Rave (and by extension the sound-world of predominantly white, middle class, Shoreditch-based hipsters, that other London style, and the occasionally overlapping 8 bit synth timbres of the chiptune movement) perhaps unfairly in the same way: as the music of ‘idiots’, as they’re known in the series.
Now I’m not suggesting that large numbers of people are misreading ‘wonky’ and hearing it to be New Rave, that hasn’t happened, but these sorts of surface connotations can go a long way in forming opinions and judgements on music and its ideological context without the listener being fully aware of what’s going on, because music is a deeply ingrained ideological, social currency (why else do people love to hate certain music?). 8 bit timbre-toting acts like Crystal Castles and David E. Sugar and a whole host of lower-grade outfits may seem to some as if they’ve stepped off the set of Nathan Barley, and are firmly part of the scene that tends to disgust many traditional nuumers. Sugar has collaborated with grime MC Ears however, and one of the interesting things about Zomby is that, in his imagery at least, he could almost be perceived as indicative of a syncretic UK style that brings traditionally hardcore dance genres closer to those of indie hipsters.
Zomby has said about the Klaxons ‘I thought they’re a great band. I dunno if they’re new rave or not’, while for many nuumheads acts like the Klaxons and Hadouken! (named after a manoeuvre in the SNES beat ‘em up Street Fighter, a game referenced in Zomby’s Where were U in 92?) are to be vilified and then ignored. Notice the hip-day-glo-cartoon-meets-metal visual style of Zomby’s logo, designed by polo, reminiscent of both unconventional dubstep pioneers Skulldisco and the logos of indie rock bands like Does It Offend You Yeah?
In the commonly-seen photo of (a Converse-wearing? guy we presume to be) Zomby standing in a forest, below, [edit: someone has pointed out that it’s not Zomby and those aren’t Converse, see the comments at the end. It’s a guy called Ordo, he features in this blog, and the relevant forum discussion is here. Thanks to Anonymous!] he’s wearing a triangular mask printed onto which is the eye from the Great Seal of the United States as it appears on the one dollar bill, a symbol popular with conspiracy theorists as it's held to be something to do with masonry and the Illuminati (uh oh, that word doesn’t appear on the Microsoft Word spellchecker, spooky…). This play on psychedelic occult mysticism is mildly reminiscent of the imagery of bands like Empire of the Sun and the thoroughly worthwhile hip-day-glo-electro-cartoon-meets-metal band Late of the Pier, whose video for the single ‘Heartbeat’ is full of overt references to the work of film auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky, and particularly his psychedelic occult mystical film Holy Mountain.
Now of course such similarities are far less evident in the music itself (if indeed there ever is such a thing as ‘the music itself’), and the parallels in visual look can be attributed to the fact that the acts inevitably breathe in the same fashion-conscious atmosphere. But I’m discussing surface perception and social macroscene conflict here rather than explaining ‘the way things really are’, and if I’ve dragged Zomby’s good name through the mud by associating it with acts that traditionally make many hardcore dance fans want to throw up then I do apologise, but it’s really their fault for being such snobs. But is it naïve of me to note that Zomby is hardly averse to being portrayed with such imagery?
Musically speaking, in comparison with more traditional dubstep, ‘wonky’ can seem, similarly unfairly, to be less ‘worthy’. Dubstep’s mountainous bass, heavy reverb, sampled, religious prophecies and ominous, slowly sinister gait quickly and easily give the genre an air of profundity. With many of these elements largely gone in this ‘wonky’ post-dubstep, and a new one appearing, namely the electro / 8 bit timbres, which (for some) have negative connotations (‘idiots’), it’s not difficult to see why some listeners have turned their noses up in disgust. I’d suggest that this indicates a sadly superficial response to both musics.
These last paragraphs may seem like a digression, but I’m keen to emphasise how ‘wonky’ can be reductively defined and written off as drug-addled, infantile hipster craziness, (even without people realising how such opinions got formed), because it’s actually a lot more than that if you open your ears...
The musical characteristics of ‘wonky’
So what is going on in the music? As with any nominal term for a body of related musical works, the closer you look at ‘wonky’, the more its stylistic coherency is challenged. Like a mental health disorder, ‘wonky’ seems to be diagnosed when a certain number of the following criteria can be fulfilled: mid-range synths with simple timbres, pitch-bending and gliding synths, relationship to nuum genres and/or hip hop, unquantised or metrically unusual beats or pitches, 8-bit sounds, arpeggiated textures and association with certain names, club nights and labels. Thus Joker is in the same bag as Flying Lotus even though their work’s quite different, and also because they have sounds in common with other acts, such as Rustie, Starkey and Zomby.
Rhythm / metre / envelopeIt’s the rhythmic and metrical characteristics of ‘wonky’ which evidently gave it its name, as it describes the nature of some of the notes (percussive or pitched) to be slightly unquantised, i.e. a fraction of a beat away from the precise spot where they should be if everything were lined up nice and metronomically. That unquantisation has itself become a primary musical aesthetic is quite exciting, as it’s on a subtle level of control that the electronic musician enjoys but that in acoustic music is either virtually impossible to notate or just a part of performance practice. Burial, truly a composer using the medium of electronic music to discover new sonic variables and use them expressively, is known for his unquantised beats – they reach a ‘wonky’ extreme in ‘Night Train’ and ‘Shutta’, where they create such a fractured, beautiful mess that it defies anything but the most complex of metrical perceptions.
(The issue of danceability has reared its controversial head a few times in discussions of ‘wonky’ and contemporary dance music in general. Due to the unquantised nature of many of its notes, ‘wonky’ can’t perfectly afford dancing, but dancing to it would rarely be impossible or inappropriate – just a general 4/4 thang with certain ‘wonky’, stuttering qualities. As with narcotics, danceability is just a certain aesthetic dimension to music and shouldn’t have exclusive rights to be at the front of the interpretation, appreciation or evaluation queues. It’s problematic to say that drugs and dancing can be ‘written into’ or ‘inherent in’ certain musics (as I said in the last post, a text may, in the right circumstances, give rise to certain affordances or resonances for a listener which may or may not have anything to do with functionalities), and with a wide range of subgenres lying around that could be described as various sorts of ‘post-dance’, danceability (and drugs – sure Zomby smokes a lot, but that needn’t define his music and prescribe our listening) shouldn’t be primary criteria by which this music lives and dies - because there’s also radio, listening to mp3 players during the day to day, bringing a new release over to a mate's house, making playlists, singing in the shower etc. as ways of consuming and appreciating the music.)
It should be noted that a lot of what may have been considered to be metrically ‘wonky’ is not really merely a case of unquantised notes (though that may or may not be technically true) but can actually be put down to two things. Firstly, quite a lot of the metrical unconventionality in ‘wonky’ is down to the use of various compound times or triplets (or swung quavers) in creating polyrhythms. In the grand musical scheme of things compound time isn’t unusual at all, but in the majority of recent popular music and particularly dance it’s relatively rare. Many of Flying Lotus’s beats and rhythms for example, though they’re often mildly unquantised, are simply incorporating compound time, nothing stranger; but because this is so unusual in hip hop they’ve been deservedly heralded as ‘wonky’ (the wonkiness of some beats, on ‘Rest EZ’ from July Heat and ‘Sleepy Dinosaur’ from Los Angeles for instance, betrays a more subtle ametricity that is a case of proper unquantisation). The Zomby EP also frequently uses compound times, triplets and other tuplets.
Secondly: other acts tend to stick to duple metres but still sound ‘wonky’ due to the unusual metricity of their envelopes, usually the lengthy attack of notes (notes taking slightly longer than normal to occur or reach their full strength). As they’re played, notes on a synthesiser (or any other instrument really) modulate (control) a certain variable such as volume or frequency in four phases: attack, decay, sustain and release. Taken together, these values are the ‘envelope’ of the note. ‘Attack’ is how long the note takes to reach the highest level, ‘decay’ how long it takes to decrease to another level which is dictated by the ‘sustain’ value, and ‘release’ denotes how long it takes the level to fade to nothing after the note is stopped. If notes or sounds have envelopes that are timed discernibly out of sync with the background metre they’re going to sound relatively ‘wonky’.
These ‘wonky’ synthesiser notes aren’t at full volume or frequency at the moment they start (which may be perfectly on-beat), but take such a time to reach full volume or frequency that they disrupt the sense of metre by getting there late. This can be heard subtly at the beginning of Starkey’s ‘Gutter Music’ from Ephemeral Exhibits. Together with low frequency oscillators, this is what gives dubstep’s ‘wobble bass’ its signature sound: at the beginning of the W or ‘oo’ sound the low-pass frequency filter is on low but as the relatively long attack phase progresses it gets higher until it reaches a more open vowel sound (‘ah’), giving it that lovely, often ametrical wah-wah-wah sound.
Zomby’s notes may arrive late in a number of other clever ways. Sometimes they’re simply programmed a tiny fraction of a beat late, as in the bass line of ‘Kaliko’. Sometimes the most discernable note is at the end of an almost imperceptibly rapid arpeggio or run of notes, as in the main riff after the drop in ‘Gloop’, or at the start of ‘Diamonds and Pearls’, with the result that a note seems to arrive late. (‘Riff’ can’t be the right word as it’s a rock thing, ‘hook’ isn’t right either… anyone know any names for the dominant thematic material of a dance track?)
In ‘Strange Fruit’ though, arpeggios start and end at unquantised intervals, and happen more quickly the higher in pitch they get (this could be because the arpeggios are actually a sample being triggered as single notes on a sample-based synthesiser where higher pitches result in higher speeds because pitch and volume are in direct proportion) resulting in one of Zomby’s most ingeniously complex rhythmic/textural structures, one which nonetheless manages to find a thrillingly precarious balance between the regular background pulse and rhythmic chaos.
Occasionally a ‘wonky’ sound finishes when it isn’t conventionally supposed to and so disrupts the metrical flow in a similar fashion. This can be heard in Flying Lotus’s ‘Tea Leaf Dancers’ as the volume for every track except the drumloop rapidly decreases immediately before the kick and rapidly increases immediately after, giving the overall texture an ametrically undulating profile. As far as I can tell, in the highly metrically ‘wonky’ Hudson Mohawke track ‘Polkadot Blues’, the volumes of the parts are reduced to nothing at very ametrical intervals, even if they were quantised before this process took place. [Edit: having now listened to a higher quality version of this track, I'm less certain that this is the case - it could be that the notes are simply programmed to lie in unusual places.]
These various types of rhythmical and metrical wonkiness are by no means exclusive to ‘wonky’. Brahms often used tuple-triple polyrhythm in the nineteenth century, and more complex rhythmic and metrical experiments are found in the music of Charles Ives, Stravinsky, Elliot Carter and even Leonard Bernstein. Many acts that come under the vague heading of ‘electronica’ have also explored free rhythm and the possibilities of unquantisation – Four Tet is just one example. Perhaps significant for ‘wonky’ and one its most dominant parent musics, dubstep, is the subtle rhythmic/metrical ‘wonkiness’ in classic dub of the sort pioneered by King Tubby and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. I can’t speak for everyone, but a major part of my enjoyment of old skool dub is the tension between the rigid 4/4 beat and two main elements that undermine it: the exquisitely languorous yet rhythmically-on-edge subtle lateness in the plucking of the bass and the groove-expanding triple time of crusty old delay effects which lift us into the psychedelically weightless world of tuple-triple polymetre and carry us heavenward with diminishing high-pass filters.
In King Tubby’s ‘African Roots’, the late quavers in the bass (probably down to performance practice rather than simply bad playing) can be heard from 0:16, and the delay effect can be heard briefly in the previous second, and more fully at 1:59 and at 2:30. These characteristics of dub can be recognised in post-dub genres with the in-my-own-sweet-time wobble bass of dubstep and the delicious, sophisticated dub techno of producers like Strategy in Drumsolo’s Delight (listen especially to the title track), and arguably play an important role in much ‘wonky’.
So if ametrical/arrhythmic ‘wonkiness’ is one of the main themes of ‘wonky’ music, what’s intriguing is that it’s produced using a variety of different methods, which is indicative of the richness of contemporary electronic music in interacting with various aesthetic demands. To some listeners it may not seem like much, but this kind of ‘wonkiness’, in preserving a basic sense of metre and undermining it without giving in entirely to the which-way-is-up disorientation of utterly free rhythm, sets up an exhilarating tug of war between a rationalised metrical reality and a psychedelic Utopia (‘no place’) in which figures we recognise are subsumed expressively into seductive abstraction – much like the paintings I’ve described above.
Timbre / instrumentationFor its synthesisers ‘wonky’ tends to use and/or combine the simpler waveforms and oscillations associated with the electro that started with the likes of Kraftwerk and rose to prominence in the early eighties and recurred in the noughties (mostly sawtooth and square, sometimes sine, spike and triangle) with a relatively simple use of modulation. The timbre most associated with retro domestic technology is probably the square wave (which sounds a bit like plastic tube does when struck – there’s a pretty pure square as the bass in Ikonika’s ‘Simulacrum’), it’s really the only sound eighties computers like the BBC Micro could make and it's close to the waveforms of wobble bass; or the triangle wave which appears in greeting cards and other novelty items that ‘sing’. Square waves and spike waves (which are square waves with a smaller pulse width, and can be heard at the very start of Zomby's ‘Gloop’) were common in various eighties game consoles such as the SNES and such timbres are called 8 bit because they were digital waveforms with a cheap and cheerful bit depth of 8 bits (on a modern CD you can expect 16), and they also had an audibly low sample rate. In tracks like ‘Out of Touch’ and ‘Need You’ Darkstar seem to be using a simple old-fashioned synthesiser, one that could perhaps be described as a toy of sorts, which is then sonically eroded. The percussive sounds of wonky are similarly non-complex or derived from older drum machines, and conventional sampling is relatively uncommon (but not for Flying Lotus and the more hip hop areas of ‘wonky’).
For the most part, then, the timbres of ‘wonky’ are those of old technology. This broad palette of sounds shouldn’t be considered, as some have done, to be ‘past it’ or specific to a certain time however. While an association with the computer games of yesteryear is explicit in the names of some tracks (Zomby’s ‘1-Up’ and ‘U Are My Fantasy (Street Fighter II Theme Remix)’ and possibly Joker’s ‘Retro Racer’), it would be wrong to consider the ‘wonky’ movement as mired in some sort of wholly backward-looking, infantilising nostalgia or a partial exercise in the pastiche of video game music*. Actually, modernism and childhood/nostalgia go very well together (Charles Ives, Brahms, Mahler, numerous authors and poets – psychedelia too, what with the music hall and trad throwbacks of the late sixties, Sgt Peppers etc, and the sweet sixties chart-pop of late eighties and nineties psychedelia), and it seems that modernism could be thought of as Janus-faced in that you need to know where you came from to know where you’re going. Not typically ‘wonky’, but it would be a shame to read Burial’s (or Zomby’s or Darkstar’s) music as a deathbed reminiscence and ignore the often startling innovation. And if, as Alex Williams suggests, contemporary music struggles to live in a world of diminishing cultural resources we would do well to re-receive old sounds with new minds as far as possible. Must such basic staples of synthesiser timbres be forever consigned to recalling 80s technology?
Ultimately though, and especially after nearly a decade of electro, the relatively simple timbres of most ‘wonky’ are not in themselves likely to be the main site of any intense aesthetic appreciation. But as almost any history of any music will show, the ability to produce box-fresh new sounds with every passing decade is a luxury and not an aesthetic necessity (or imperative).
*Kode9, who as the man behind Hyperdub records undoubtedly played a role in establishing the ‘wonky’ sound, has described his own techno-sensual aesthetic of 8 bit timbres, which makes a departure from the 80s video-gaming connotation:
I wasn’t particularly into video games in the 80s, or anything to do with that really... It’s just certain sounds which gave me that shiver... It’s something like the purity of those synthesised sounds, really crystalline, they’ve not been fucked with too much, you can hear the sound of the circuitry in such a pure but amusing way. Fun, but brain-tingling sounds... The combination of melodies and hearing circuitry crying, hearing circuitry singing.
Structure / texture(The definition of musical texture varies quite widely - I like to think of it as a kind of sonic silhouette.) Controversially, much ‘wonky’ removes the bass from the foreground of its textures (a move which is bound to put off many listeners) and replaces it with a number of mid-range synths. With these ‘wonky’ creates a range of busy polyphonies and heterophonies, with the rhythmic irregularities resulting in fragmented and complex textures. A particularly common textural feature that’s relatively rare in popular music is the arpeggio (though they’re sitting in the front seat of Skream’s ‘Midnight Request Line’ – ‘proto-wonky’?), which as 8 bit consoles had very few oscillators to work with and so would often make do with rapid broken chords, can be seen as an element borrowed from chiptunes and video game music. In ‘wonky’, though, it becomes a signature element in itself as the music as a whole tends to stay away from direct pastiche of video game music. As arpeggios (and the rhythmic ‘wonkiness’ in general) have a dominating textural presence, texture could be described as an important site of musical invention in ‘wonky’ where previously this sort of territory was the lone stamping ground of the likes of Draft 7.30 era Autechre. The sorts of textures that ‘wonky’ conjures are, to my knowledge, quite new to popular music.
We also see a wide range of different, relatively original forms in ‘wonky’, which seems to express dissatisfaction with the highly formulaic nature of many dance genres. Often (bass) drops are gone or have mutated into strange new textural negotiations, quite possibly because such structural devices were perceived as clichés. Ikonika usually launches straight in with thematic material and many of her tracks feature markedly contrasting secondary material, which is rare in hardcore dance. ‘Direct’ is the most extreme example of this.
Harmony / melodyWhile notions of common practice tonality are generally redundant in music like garage and dubstep, it remains a fact that many ‘wonky’ tracks are manifestly atonal and can tend to favour traditionally dissonant intervals such as the tritone (the interval which gives Zomby’s ‘Kaliko’ and Starkey’s ‘Pictures’ their sinister opening riffs) and chromaticism. This dissonance is not a by-product of a generally chaotic and noisy disposition or M.O. but has been carefully and deliberately pitched. I’ll say it yet again (getting the picture?), this is a rare and surprising move for popular music (you begin to wonder whether the rather old-fashioned prophecies of kids one day smiling along to wonked-out modernist sounds had some truth to them).
A preponderance of pitch-bending and gliding in synth lines has been noted in ‘wonky’, further complicating and sophisticating its melodies, rhythms and textures, and was commonplace in grime and dubstep. The effect dominates Starkey’s music and is used strikingly and innovatively at the start of Ikonika’s ‘Please’. Here every note, already filter-modulated, is heavily pitch-bent downwards, giving a sensation (for me at least) of round objects falling from the sky or slippery things sliding off one’s hands and between the fingers. Given the title of the track, I'm inclined to imagine this music as a portrait of a pathetic figure bowing repeatedly in apologetic supplication, hit in the gut, bent double and made nauseous with guilt, that sinking feeling of having done wrong and craving forgiveness, while saw and spike waves busily needle the nerves (but hey, then again one listener’s startling expressive possibilities are another listner’s second-rate, annoying retro video game music...).
At last to turn to Joker – without a doubt one of the strongest melody-writers in grime and dubstep (and sometimes it sounds like he’s been studying counterpoint). As he stays away from rhythmic/metrical or textural ‘wonkiness’, I’m disinclined to situate him at the core of the ‘wonky’ movement though he does of course employ the simple, modulated electro timbres most commonly associated with it. His tunes have a melodic drama and forthright-ness that in the first three seconds of theme seems rather surprising, even (for some, particularly those listening in the comparatively amelodic context of classic dubstep) uncomfortable or embarrassingly vulgar and vaguely reminiscent of crunk, but by the fourth second has become utterly, heroically compelling and subsequently addictive. ‘Gully Brook Lane’ is a classic example of this, a track with, indicatively, a bassline so mobile and with such a wide tessitura (range) as to challenge the very definition of the word ‘bass’. Note that Joker favours the colour purple (not a realist’s colour) and has written a track called ‘Psychedelic Runway’. Joker’s ‘wonkiest’ tune could be ‘Retro Racer’, a comprehensively innovative, avant-garde yet tuneful piece with heavy, carefully controlled pitch-bending and rapid, rhythmically sophisticated melodic-textural figures.
Affect / topic / stylistic rangeSimply put, ‘wonky’ features a wider range of moods and styles than the mono-mood of classic dubstep and other genres in hardcore dance or popular music at large. Joker really brings this aspect to life with his eloquent mood-music (I’d love to see him do a film soundtrack), and played through, collections such as the Zomby EP and Starkey’s Ephemeral Exhibits take us on a tour of assorted affects and stylistic configurations. The latter’s exquisite contemplation ‘Miracles’, bringing to mind different-ball-park acts like Boards of Canada, seems to be our chillout room - but there’s a subtly ill look on the faces of the punters gathered there. Such stylistic smorgasbords seem to point to IDM’s ‘home listening’ illustrated encyclopaedias of style, suites such as Aphex Twin’s Drukqs being a prime example.
In fact the influence of Burial’s highly emotive utterances could be responsible for some of this diversity. Tracks like ‘Test me for a reason’ on the Zomby EP make a departure from the stylistic norm in order to give that unique (and so powerfully memetic) Burial sound a personal spin, and though I’m certainly not saying that Burial gave birth to Darkstar’s sound, it’s not difficult to imagine them in a similar cultural context, though Darkstar find very different timbre and melodic solutions. Hear the emotionally raw, ‘wonkily’ painful opening of ‘Need you’, where shifting stereo effects, intimate timbres and humanisingly unquantised variations on the accompanying figures portray a mind lost in inconclusive emotional rumination. At 2:25 a wholly different sound is added to the mix, the tremolo of a bell-like tone bathed in hi-fi reverb, suggesting another layer of consciousness or perspective: the interjection of a more intellectual side of the psyche, or perhaps the sensually pure glow of aluminium streetlamps periodically illuminating this emotional wanderer as s/he paces through the city at night.
A magnified listen to Zomby’s ‘Kaliko’
I’ve transcribed the first twenty-nine bars (not counting repeats) of Zomby’s ‘Kaliko’ to use a case study and detailed musical example here (‘boffin empiricism’?) for a number of reasons. The Zomby EP features some of the best examples of metrical ‘wonkitude’, but the wilder Zomby tracks like ‘Gloop’ and ‘Aquafre5h’ would be horrifically difficult to transcribe. That said, ‘Kaliko’ is one of my favourite Zomby tracks because of its unusual and oddly compelling textures and weird formal structure. It also demonstrates different kinds of rhythmic ‘wonkiness’ and typical ‘wonky’ instrumentation. One of the main ‘wonky’ elements absent from ‘Kaliko’ though is pitch-bending, but given the many other noteworthy aspects of the track, it’s an ample compromise. In fact, in transcribing it, I discovered ‘Kaliko’ to be even more complex and subtle that I’d expected.
Naturally there are translation problems inherent in an act of transcription into traditional Western notation. What I’ve produced is a listening score rather than a performing one (though, ha, you’re welcome to try) of course, hardcore dance doesn't use performing scores and so markings like staccato and dynamics are quaint approximations, and sharps and flats are redundant because hardcore dance music doesn’t generally have a key (I’ve used only sharps throughout for the sake of simplicity). Traditional Western notation fails in that it does barely anything to represent timbre other than labelling staves and feature some percussion conventions, so I can only approximately notate the rhythms of Zomby’s sound effects. Similarly I can’t represent envelopes, though that isn’t a massive issue here, but whether notes should be marked staccato because their envelopes are so short or whether they simply have short rhythmic values is ambiguous – I’ve just gone by ear. In some places I’ve broken the strictest rules of how notes are written out for the sake of visual simplicity, particularly the clarity of seeing syncopation (drum machine bar 28) but since musicians won’t be complaining that it’s difficult to figure out the rhythm, that shouldn’t matter.
Repeat markings, though they don’t really have an analogue in software arrangements, make things neater and clearer in the transcription regarding use of material. One of the other strengths of traditional Western notation in representing ‘wonky’ is that tuplets are clearly labelled by convention (you can see where compound time is happening with brackets labelled ‘3’ or ‘9’), and in piano roll notation this wouldn’t be the case. On the other hand piano roll wouldn’t make such a visual fuss of single semiquavers offset by demisemiquavers (bass bar 1 – all of which is evidence that the system wasn’t originally designed for ‘wonky’s’ subtly unquantised rhythms).
The biggest, most obvious reason for using traditional Western notation is that there’s barely any alternative – most people would have been more than a bit nonplussed if I’d put everything in piano roll notation or dug up some obscure Esperanto-like new attempt from the archives of twentieth-century music. Even reconstructing or obtaining the whole thing in its original technological context would pose big representational problems. Ultimately a new notational system needs to be designed that can sufficiently cope with the subtle and complex rhythms and automated, modulated timbres of today’s electronic music and bring detailed listening scores to the attention of analysts. I won’t go on further about the philosophy of transcribing popular music into traditional Western notation, but hopefully I’ve sufficiently negated the impression that doing so is the monstrous, stillborn aberration borne of this classical music (‘bourgeois isn’t it?’) boffin’s imperialistic attempt to colonise the music of the streets (‘I knew this whole thing was shifty the moment fourteenth-century polyphonic song was brought up…’).
Just a glance at the score will show you that this is complex music which deals in some rapid rhythmical values. You’ll notice the bass is truly bizarre – at the opening, tiny sotto voce hiccups on the threshold of perception but nevertheless exerting a strange and subtle influence on the texture. It’s generally offset by tiny demisemiquaver rests here, but from bar 20 onwards it blunders along like a wonky pentagon, hobbling forward at a worrying speed alongside the triplets in the mid-range, mocking them all the while by reflecting their shapes with a mirror warped by syncopation and constantly emitting a deep giggle – all of which creates monstrously complex polyrhythmic heterophony, which then gets thicker and reaches its peak at bar 28 when the second square wave joins in with yet another rhythmic/metrical take on the rising figure motif.
‘Kaliko’ starts with simple hat-tapping as three different parts improvise dissonantly and impatiently on the simple theme of the tritone interval. But the parts don’t always agree – the saw and square, though they’re counting the same pulse, soon fall out of sync. As always, the bass is being cheeky and uncooperative, stubbornly occupying different tonal areas and time signatures, and always letting out its notes slightly late (late enought to make an impression, like the last clap in a round of applause). In bar 4 we’re suddenly thrown an entirely new object, a rapidly rising, upward cascade figure in triplets built using a very specific but alien scale, its presence seems to deform the previously clockwork pulsing of the hats. It repeats once and is quickly gone, leaving everything as before, though drums are sporadically getting involved. In bar 8 a scale that's a rhythmically diminished version the melodic material of that upward cascade motif appears, but it’s placed the wrong way round. It sits there repeating for a longer time than we think it should have done, seemingly causing the drum machine to stop what it’s doing and kill time nervously on the hats. Everyone seems to be looking around in confused anticipation.
The upward cascade suddenly returns in bar 11 and, as if it had got there too early, the drum machine comes fully back to life, and a bizarre continuous sound effect hints that things are really starting to happen. The cascade is repeating constantly and even the bass is in line on beats 1 and 3. At bar 16 the rhythmic values of the cascade are cut to a third for two bars, as if slowing from a sprint to a jog like they’re running out of breath, while the hats shape-shift again. Soon the lead saw is static once more, palms on knees, panting, and reverting to the opening tritone figure. This return to stagnation lasts only two bars, and then the sense of anticipation is suddenly heightened by a strange bird-call, heralding the arrival of another runner in bar 20: a smooth, quieter, improved square wave model, like a glittering, chromatic Duracell bunny, being accompanied by that deep mocking laughter from the blundering, club-footed bass.
Everything that has happened up to now has been a mutant version of the traditional bass drop. In a conventional bass drop structure there are four stages: 1) the percussion and background synths begin the piece bit by bit, 2) the texture thickens to a small extent before 3) the parts drop out to silence, and then 4) we’re suddenly hit by the bass and thicker, more active percussion. What happens in ‘Kaliko’ is a lot more complex: 1) the percussion and synths begin the piece with sporadic, dissonant pitches, 2) a lively but wholly alien object appears (the upward cascade motif), promising but not yet delivering because we’re returned to 1b) with slightly thicker percussion. Then there’s 2b) which is a contrasting variation on the alien object which seems to outstay its welcome, after which is 2c) when things become so active we wonder what’s going on – and yet 3) they begin to slow down until they return to the 1). We’re not left in silence however, because 4) comes straight in, and is based on the material from 2) but for a different synthesiser (the Duracell bunny). This third-time’s-a-charm revving-up is a complicated variant of the traditional drop, one that brings in a compelling textural foundation rather than a bass hook. The whole effect is one of confusion and anticipation – it’s derived from the excitement of any dance track’s opening but it gets where it needs to in its own stimulatingly irregular way.
The main texture of ‘Kaliko’, established at bar 22, is actually a patchwork of slightly different heterophonically polyrhythmic textures built from different rhythmic/metric manifestations of the upward cascade figure, shifting slowly with rhythmic diminution and augmentation, accompanied by an array of complex polyrhythmic drumloops big enough for a whole Flying Lotus record. This overlapping and weaving-together of different strands into a dense, strong, textural fabric could explain the title of the piece, and makes the whole musical structure a busy, mechanised loom. To return to the race metaphor: there are three competitors by bar 28 (a moment which was prepared for by thickening square 1’s texture to two semi-imitative parts, something that looks like it was written by Scriabin, at bar 24): the two squares and the bass, with the metrically shape-shifting percussion and the saw which dominated at the beginning just presiding with the odd typical D sharp interjection. These kaleidoscopic, perpetuum mobile textures create a fantastic sense of momentum that is (I believe) unique in dubstep. To try another metaphor, it’s like various sets of overlaid spinning wheels and polygons of different sizes and shapes in the mind’s eye (listen to this at 0:35, 0:49 and 1:03 and consider the orphist paintings below.)
‘Kaliko’ could be described as exhibiting a kind of ‘metric modulation’, in which metre is transformed over time – it’s a feature of Elliot Carter’s music. The opening bars are in a relatively normal 4/4 metre, and triplet elements begin to creep in sporadically (beginning with the upward cascade of bar 4) until we get to bar 24 where every part is in triplets such that the whole thing could be written in a compound time signature (12/8), after which we slowly modulate back to the 4/4 of the opening. Note too, that this process occurs at a different rate than that of the structural architecture of the drop.
‘Kaliko’ is a remarkably complex, sophisticated piece of music. It can be read as an essay in the duple-vs-triple metrical tension of dub, and as such it thoroughly deserves to be considered ‘hyperdub’ after the record label it was put out on. The kaleidoscopic play of constantly rolling textures in expanded tonality reminds me of nineteenth- and twentieth-century études or studies, especially those composed by avant-gardist György Ligeti. It can also draw comparison with the work of Ives and Carter, central African polyphony, experimental gamelan and especially the early modernist polyrhythms and cascade-like figures of Stravinsky in works like The Rite of Spring.
At the hardcore continuum seminar k-punk suggested that discourse on ‘wonky’ was characterised by ‘language far in excess of sonic fact’, a comment so intriguing and (thought-) provoking I noted it down verbatim. To put aside the philosophical problems of reconciling language and music as distinct systems of communication and comparing the two, one wonders if it is indeed possible to ‘over-talk’ about music. Elsewhere, k-punk has expressed his disappointment with ‘wonky’, and his preference for Alex Williams’s linguistically Baroque frame over the actual music itself, the ‘sonic facts’. Though I’ve (inevitably) used a lot of metaphor, I hope to have brought some of ‘wonky’s’ sonic facts into a clearer light, where I may have been able to show that they can rival the language that points them out in aesthetic potential. I also hope to have challenged another of k-punk’s thoughts about ‘wonky’, that it hasn’t ‘surpassed the [hardcore dance] continuum in any sense’.
One could argue that it took the convolution of music theory jargon and a microscope to discover ‘wonky’s’ aesthetic potential and bring it to everyday ears, or that even the most drab of musics can be sexed up with metaphor and a torrent of technical language that not everyone is familiar with. Such positions rely on there being some sort of stability in the musical text and its relationship to language, and given the problematic nature of this I hope that my comments will not be measured against a non-existent standard of ‘accuracy’ or the appropriateness of different levels of ‘magnification’, but will be fairly considered as ways of listening that illuminate new areas of interest and new aesthetic criteria that have been sadly missed off the aesthetic agendas of some. Broadly speaking, since my exhaustively stated goal is aesthetics and not interpretation, the charge of overinterpretation cannot exactly apply (more on this in a future post on the notion of pareidolia).
K-punk has written:
the ‘moral’ critique that Alex detects in my post – though I’m not really sure that ‘moral’ is the right word – is aimed at writers, for allowing slackening rates of innovation to become normalised; or what amounts to the same thing, for succumbing to the general condition of reviewing - as opposed to criticism – where records are assessed on blearily defined hedonic criteria alone, part of the background twitter of tepid cheerleading for late capitalism’s minimally different commodities.As I’m a commentator whose every other word is ‘aesthetic’ and who likes to wallow in hedonistic pragmatism, who spoils everyone’s fun by picking tiny holes in other people’s limited epistemologies but then refuses to give answers and instead suggests ‘heuristics’ (and suffocates sentences with little fair’s-fair doubt-bringing words and phrases), such an eloquent kick up my ideological backside is worth some serious reflection. I can’t rightly hide behind the scholarly/scientific status of musicology what with the Caligulan orgy of hedonic analogy I’ve written above about ‘Kaliko’ (a decadently delightful vomit session reminiscent of the excess-craving ruling classes of Ancient Rome), but I might have been able, by drawing on elements of its discourse, to read the music according to something more precise than ‘blearily defined hedonic criteria’ in order to show that ‘wonky’ is anything but ‘minimally different’, and reverse the notion that ‘wonky’ is indicative of ‘slackening rates of innovation’.
An aesthetic potential for ‘wonky’ lies not so much in its timbre, danceability, technological forces or socio-cultural connotation, but in its innovative metres, rhythms, structures and textures and its holding up of a ‘wonky’ mirror to established musical conventions – according to these criteria, ‘wonky’ is probably the most (formally) sophisticated dubstep or hip hop I’m currently aware of. If, as k-punk proposes, ‘comparing Wonky with Jungle, Speed Garage and 2-step is surely no contest’ then perhaps this is because ‘wonky’ is playing an entirely different aesthetic game to those genres, with entirely different rules.
The anarchistic aesthetics that I favour may seem like capitulation to a capitalistic God that loves all his creations equally, it being our religious duty to help those that aren’t quite getting by as well as others in His world by peering closer and closer and more and more askance at texts until we find something we can enjoy (so we can add it to the supermarket shelves). This is far from what I hope to do. What I hope to do is undermine the ideologically-imposed limits on aesthetic reception, challenge prescribed methods of experience and complicate notions of sometimes unduly negative, sometimes totalising ‘knowledge’-based value-judgement as it flows from the pens of the powerful or the narrow-minded (and I don’t believe in a capitalism that will ultimately be kind to ‘wonky’ either).
‘Wonky’ is rich, worthy, bold new music. ‘Wonkification’ is a psychedelic new modernism that can’t be dismissed as ‘pulp avant-garde’ (perhaps, as Dan Hancox suggests, British club music is in the midst of a ‘revolutionary ferment’, albeit partially). Like its six-hundred-year-old counterpart the ‘ars subtilior’, ‘wonky’ manifestly deserves to be called a ‘more subtle art’ - more subtle than some were expecting. Being ‘wonky’ is not a scene or a genre, but the sign of a new innovation, and the most fascinating elements of the ‘wonky’ movement (Zomby, Ikonika, Joker, Darkstar et al) have been released on Hyperdub – hats off for putting out and continuing to stimulate an atmosphere conducive to the creation of some of the most inventive and inspiring electronic music to have appeared in a long time.
I hope to have shown the way to some of the exciting things that are going on in ‘wonky’. Ultimately however, you may quite rightfully choose to avoid the intervention of linguistic signposts, cluttering your aesthetic view. You may choose to conclude, as Flying Lotus does at the beginning of ‘Sketchbook’ from July Heat: ‘I have no idea what’s going on – I just want to hear the beats.’
Thanks for reading.
UPDATE 16/06/09: Dan Hancox has done a brill article for the Guardian on Guido, Gemmy and Joker which is spot on in my opinion, find it here. The idea for a stylistic label (‘purple’) crops up and is musician-approved - I reckon it could do nicely. I’m now even more firmly of the opinion that ‘purple’ is a distinct style seperate from ‘wonky’ (though it shares certain DNA and currently fashionable characteristics), and it’s not even particularly subject to the laws of transversal ‘wonkification’ either. Hopefully such thinking can catch on for the general public. Meanwhile, Simon Reynolds writes a great piece about J-Dilla, touching on unquantisation and the hip hop side of things.
UPDATE 17/07/09: Débruit's Let's Post Funk, released mid June 09, gave me an excuse to further demonstrate and consolidate these ideas about ‘wonky’.
SEE ALSO: A correspondance on the analysis and meanings of ‘wonky’ rhythms.
1. 'Participatory Discrepancy', a response to this article by Toby at T. G. P. B.
2. 'After the beat (still loving wonky)', my response to 'Participatory Discrepancy' and a follow-up to this post.
3. '...just one more thing', Toby's response to 'After the beat (still loving wonky)', with further exchanges in comment boxes there.
SEE ALSO: A really interesting article on ‘wonky’ architecture by Jeff at There Was Always Doubt.