Philip Sherburne recently wrote an article for Frieze Magazine entitled “A New Futurism In Dance Music.” In it, he notes that “a wide swath of present-day artists go to great lengths to infuse their own productions with a … vintage sound,” claiming, “There’s been little in electronic music to orient us to the now, much less the nascent future that has long been its ostensible province.” However, Sherburne goes on to cite artists such as Lotic, FKA Twigs, Arca, and P.C. Music’s A.G. Cook as musicians who dare to do something different and break the old modes of electronic music.
Another such artist is Ashkan Kooshanejad, or Ash Koosha. Kooshanejad was born in and studied music at Tehran but has since moved to London. He's an artist who takes on the roles of filmmaker, music-producer, singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and composer. Earlier this year, he released an electronic LP entitled GUUD, which has garnered positive reviews from the likes of the Needle Drop and received a brief track review on Pitchfork. Yet he remains mostly in the shadows, claiming in an interview with Anthony Fantano that he has “been a bit of a caveman” in London, working on his art but seeking no fame.
While at school in Tehran, he discovered a love for the structure of classical music, especially symphonies. Before long, however, he began to find the traditional instruments of this classical form limiting. Early on, he realized that electronic music offers composers an infinite timbral palette. Although great performers can do amazing things with their instruments, when it comes down to it, a violinist just has a violin with which to work. And yes, that limitation can lead to profound artistic expression and ingenuity, but it’s a limitation that doesn’t have to exist. In the collective shadow of John Cage, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Pierre Schaffer, and countless others, Kooshanejad began to explore the classical form with electronic sounds.
Kooshanejad admits that he composes with “no grid,” meaning the music is not meant to fit to any one tempo or meter. To do away with the “grid” is not to do away with rhythm entirely: many of GUUD’s textures have discernible, underlying pulses and phrases that lend the song a sense of rhythm, if not the consistency. His treatment of pitch is equally loose, not trying to fit his melodies and harmonies into distinct Western theoretical molds. For example, on the track “Wait,” a succession of dissonant plucking sounds are surrounded by ambient drones, a low bubbling pulse, warped vocals, some heavily panned screeches, and more. The track evokes texture rather than melody.
On GUUD, Kooshanejad brandishes a unique compositional approach he calls “nano-composition,” which was “born out of his obsession with scale and based on ideas explored in nanotechnology and quantum realm.” He defines it as, “creating a composition, based on the sonic behavior of fractal patterns that exist within a stretched or rescaled sound wave but without pitch alteration.” Here, scale does not refer to pitch, but rather, duration. So for example, the low rumble of a volcano could last over days or months, a song may play over a few minutes, or a musical phrase may be contained within a few seconds. A microsonic scale, on the other hand, ranges from ten to one-hundred milliseconds. Although some people in computer music academia deal with this microsonic scale as subjects of research, others have begun to apply it creatively through granular synthesis — the manipulation and creation of these grains (or short sounds) as the basis of their art. Kooshanejad, like these artists, uses a microsonic scale, but he distinguishes himself by enlarging or stretching this sound into a more audible scale while keeping their original pitch intact. For example, he might take a thirty-millisecond sound clip of a door creaking and enlarge it to a ten-second clip (though without lowering the pitch, which would otherwise happen with the stretch). He's not just exploring and manipulating these microscopic sounds, he's also exposing their intricacies and bringing new sonic creatures to life.
Consider a bell tone. Knowing nothing about spectral analysis (a way to view sonic waveforms on a graph), one might assume that the sound is exceptionally straightforward and basic, but when looking closely at the makeup of the bell’s ring, one sees a dense, complex, and chaotic microsonic waveform. This chaos is made audible by Kooshanejad's nano-compositional techniques, and that chaos is one of the sources that the composer draws upon to violate his listener’s musical expectations, the type of experience which Sherborne describes in his article as a “brain re-arranging rush”:
As beats come undone from conventional timekeeping and notes twist in the artificial winds, the brain struggles to catch up; you can practically feel new paths being blazed through your cortex, new neural networks congealing around unfamiliar tropes.
Shelborne’s account is likely to resonate with fans of jazz, a genre full of those spontaneous moments of tension and release, expectation and reversal, moments that push the brain to its outermost limits of sonic and temporal perception. Jazz depends on live interaction; its twists and turns are the work of improvisers playing together in a room, responding to each other’s ideas. But when you're alone with a computer, you have to look elsewhere. Kooshanejad sees potential in the world of digital sounds and in his ability to manipulate them. On “Bo Bo Bones,” the composer introduces a somewhat followable build of staccato sounds, but as the track unfolds, all sorts of other surprising noises filter in, pulling the listener’s ear suddenly in one direction and then another until finally all expectation melts away.
Kooshanejad’s ability to extract (or impose on) humanity from the digital world is one of the larger successes on GUUD. As his album cover of digitally cut-and-pasted human body parts suggests, we are inextricably linked to machines. The sounds across the album feel anything but human, yet from the way he composed them, mostly starting as improvised portions that he would then go on to alter again and again, there is something undeniably organic and free about the music's flow. The album does not relish in the artificiality of its sounds, but instead it shows the potential for humanity in the most computerized and digitized of worlds. The manipulation and appreciation of microsounds and nano-composition are impossible without technology, yet it is the way he uses these techniques that produces meaning and emotion.
GUUD is an album insistently human and organic in approach, while unapologetically technological in sound. There is no effort here to hide the artifice of Kooshanejad’s digital music world. Many albums intend to bring the listener on a journey, often bringing them to a specific place. Ash Koosha does not do this. His music echoes out into the void, leaving objects rather than environments. It is as if these synesthetic sonic objects (see again the interview with Fantano) hang in midair, interacting with each other and shifting forms. This idea, while difficult to describe, can be best visualized in Hirad Sab’s video work for the opener “I Feel That,” and the title track “GUUD.” The music on GUUD feels three-dimensional — an album whose diverse and dynamic set of sounds can be felt, followed, and replayed, but never transcribed.
Download and stream GUUD for free on Bandcamp.