RECOMMENDED READING: Maximal Nation by Simon Reynolds


Simon Reynolds (author of Retromania) writes a long essay considering "maximalism" in electronic music starting with the "awake" sounds of Rustie's Glass Swords: "The overall effect of pulling from all these different phases in the evolution of electronic music technology is a fiesta of retro-futures: as if flashing back simultaneously to all the moments when a bunch of new machines changed the sound of music could somehow redeliver that original shock of the now. But there's no melancholy for a "lost future," just delirious reiteration, thrilling overkill."

Compared with the analog hardware that underpinned early house and techno, the digital software used by the vast majority of dance producers today has an inherent tendency towards maximalism. In an article for Loops, Matthew Ingram (who records as Woebot) wrote about how digital audio workstations like Ableton Live and FL Studio encourage "interminable layering" and how the graphic interface insidiously inculcates a view of music as "a giant sandwich of vertically arranged elements stacked upon one another." Meanwhile, the software's scope for tweaking the parameters of  any given sonic event  opens up a potential "bad infinity" abyss of fiddly fine-tuning. When digital software meshes with the minimalist aesthetic you get what Ingram calls "audio trickle": a finicky focus on sound-design, intricate fluctuations in rhythm, and other minutiae that will be awfully familiar to anyone who has followed mnml or post-dubstep during the last decade. But now that same digital technology is getting deployed to opposite purposes: rococo-florid riffs, eruptions of digitally-enhanced virtuosity, skyscraping solos, and other "maxutiae," all daubed from a palette of fluorescent primary colors. Audio trickle has given way to audio torrent-- the frothing extravagance of fountain gardens in the Versailles style


I got quite a long way into this piece before discovering that the term "digital maximalism" was already claimed by a writer operating completely outside the context of music criticism: William Powers, the author of Hamlet's BlackBerryBuilding a Good Life in the Digital Age. Powers coined "digital maximalism" to describe the contemporary creed that the maximization of connectivity is both essential and life-enhancing. Hamlet's BlackBerry is just one of a growing genre of book-length critiques of modern lifestyles deemed overly organized around screens and hand-held telecommunication devices, and the common note sounded by all these books is that maximizing connectivity can max out your nervous system, leaving you in a brittle state of hectic numbness, overwhelmed by options, increasingly incapable of focused concentration or fully-immersed enjoyment.

Some reviews of Glass Swords have connected these two kinds of digital maximalism, musical and lifestyle. One of the very first writers to single out Rustie as an emerging talent made this link in a Pitchfork column a couple of years ago: Martin Clark suggested that Rustie's overloading of "the midrange with bleeps and riffs heading in disparate directions" served as "a metaphor for living in intense digital excess." Rustie politely demurs from this kind of reading of his music, noting sagely that people have been hand-wringing about the shriveling of attention spans for decades, and pointing out that "I'm not plugged-in all the time-- I'm too busy making music!"

Still, there's no doubt that something about Glass Swords and its ilk that seems to speak to our current moment. The super-sharp sheen and crisp separation, the compressed-and-EQ'd in-your-faceness of the sound parallel the endless upgrades in audio-video entertainment, from high-definition flatscreen TV to CGI-saturated movies and 3D cinema to the ever-more real-seeming unreality of games.


You become at once a composer free to interminably tweak your score and a conductor able to repeatedly reconfigure your orchestra and run through endless variations of interpretation. That said, my own fleeting acquaintance with digital audio workstations (dabbling on my brother's Ableton) left me wondering how users manage to even start a track, let alone finish one. The combination of computer (infinite flexibility) and internet (infinite resources of raw material and "inspiration") seems far more likely to cause complete artistic paralysis: the impulse of fusion collapsing into con-fusion, the musical equivalent of a gone-too-far collage. A lot of music today walks a line between collecting and hoarding; as Mark Richardson put it in his Resonant Frequency column, music-as-Tumblr-- the barely-annotated heap of all that's caught your ear...