Jan Jelinek, Bjork and the Evolution of Glitch

These past two weeks I’ve been listening fairly constantly to Jan Jelinek’s loop-finding-jazz-records, and thinking about beauty. Beauty in IDM and glitch techno is something I’ve been meaning to write about for literally ages, but I never got around to it because in my head it kept on unfolding into an impossibly long epic as painful to read as it would be to write. So now I’m just writing, with very little idea of what I’m going to say next – in other words, the way I usually write about music.

Now that the glitch is accepted almost as orthodoxy among the techno and IDM community, with even the most abrasive works of Thomas Brinkmann or DAT Politics provoking little more than arched eyebrows, the movement, as Mille Plateux are eager to insist that it is, must find itself new challenges. One alternative is to attempt to combine the sound with already existing styles such as hip hop to house, and even rock when Radiohead can be bothered. Jan Jelinek’s aim meanwhile seems to be a simpler and very sympathetic one: to make the glitch a thing of beauty.

It’s easy, with records like this one, to focus on the process of its production (hinted at even in the title) rather than the music itself. The idea of piecing together samples and loops from old jazz records to make a glitch album is an intriguing one primarily, I think, because it acts as a nice counterpoint to the dub-obsession of so many glitch artists, particularly those on Jelinek’s own label, ~scape. Listening though, I don’t notice much about the specific sounds Jelinek uses that I can identify as particularly jazzy – usually they’re all too bitty and isolated to even identify as specific instruments, with little to differentiate them from the ambient drones used more commonly by other glitch techno artists.

Rather, the jazziness that I, at least, can discern within the album (and I must add the disclaimer here that I am hardly a suitable judge in this regard) is in Jelinek’s treatment of his samples. It’s in the way he stretches them into warm, wavering chords that don’t sound ambient or spectral so much as relaxed and comfortable. Combined with the often random seeming flecks of percussion and skips that always hover just on the edge of forming a proper groove, the experience reminds me of all the times I used to put on Davis’ Kind of Blue before I would go to sleep, hoping to “get” jazz by osmosis. Loop-finding-jazz-records affects that same dreamy, distracted air which that album gave and still gives me. It is, however, a distraction that is only seeming, disguising the intense concentration of expert craftsmanship.

The album is undeniably one of the more beautiful glitch records I’ve heard, and for that I love it, but I actually think Jelinek could stand to allow even more beauty into his work next time around. Unlike the live renditions of his work that I have heard, which were considerably more beat-driven and house-affiliated along the lines of Luomo or Herbert, there’s a certain restrained prettiness to loop-finding-jazz-records which, though certainly enjoyable, gives the music the appearance of reserved formality. It may turn out that this slightly arch chill is in fact one of the defining and best qualities of Jelinek’s work, and yet I can’t help but wonder what might happen if he let his guard down a bit.

In doing so I find myself frequently, if perhaps only half-heartedly, comparing Jelinek’s album to the Schematic label’s compilation Lily of the Valley, an album I have treasured for some time but have found it difficult to write about. Unlike Jelinek’s work, much of the music on Lily of the Valley goes some way towards snubbing its nose at prettiness, but such a move does not at all prevent it from straining towards a certain beauty. This beauty is one of emotional expressiveness rather than formal loveliness, and while it is reasonable to expect the two to often coincide, Schematic’s artists seem to have an uncanny ability to portray emotions in flux, striking delicate balances (or powerful imbalances) between light and dark that force them to delve into more shadowy corners of the glitch/IDM/electro landscape than Jelinek might feel comfortable with.

The roughly conjoined sections in Richard Devine’s opening “Anthracite T. Vari”, for example, seem to toss and turn with a petulant destructiveness, the deliberately ramshackle glitch and self-consciously jagged DSP processing of the initial stages indicating to me an incoherent and unsympathised – because unsympathetic – anger. This small-voiced rage is slowly, eventually subsumed within mournful, wise ambience, giving these later stages of sad melodicism a context and edge that actually renders them more affecting. Maybe I’m projecting when I say that this track simply has to be an elegy for the loss of the innocence of youth (and maybe the loss of youth’s freedom to be incoherent), but it suggests such a narrative to me too powerfully for me to entertain any alternatives.

Excepting the lovestruck-but-bittersweet sonics and butterfly stomached underwater percussion of Takeshi Muto’s “Muto Love”, nothing else on Lily of the Valley hits me with such force as Devine’s piece, but much of the album seems steeped in that aforementioned emotional expressiveness. Most often the music strikes me as attempting to recreate the singularly magical, if frightening, world of the isolated child. Like a musical homage to Alice in Wonderland, many moments here offer up a vision of the world as an alternately fascinating and fearful place that often inspires but only occasionally satisfies an earnest desire for the security of home. Indeed, the musical selections are as diverse as Alice’s alien world, ranging from the spooked-out soundscapes of Jeswa’s “Poema Singleo” to the more familiar Aphex Twin-like wistfulness of Delarosa & Asora’s “Lily’s Theme”, or the fragile optimism of Phoenicia’s “Monday (Disjecta RMX)”, or the starry-eyed wonder of 09’s “Seven Milliseconds”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, on her latest album Vespertine Bjork has gone further than almost anyone in forging a deliberately emotional brand of glitch/IDM, utilising glitch’s fetishism of the mistake to create a beautiful but accurately flaw-riddled map of her experience. Of course, in a certain fashion she is only half-successful, as unstable glitch rhythms have never sounded more natural, more eternal than on this album, set against the backdrop of lushly orchestrated and choir-adorned love songs. The glitch has traditionally been an aural signifier for the digital world, the cast-off remainder of a thousand simultaneous and precisely calculated divisions; on tracks like “Hidden Place” or “An Echo, A stain”, though, the eddying whirls of glitch rhythms more closely resemble networks of microscopic organic lifeforms, clustering and dispersing with a fluidity that transcends the stiff grace of mathematics – a patternless profusion shaped and sculpted by the demands of nature.

Bjork realises, I think, the suggestive power of the glitch, mirroring as it does the mistake-fetishising oddness of her own vocals. On “Cocoon”, underneath what is one of her most roughly unadorned performances and some of her most painfully personal lyrics (“he slides inside, half awake half asleep. We faint back into sleep-hood. When I wake up a second time in his arms- Gorgeousness! He’s still inside me!”), a collection of vinyl pops and jittery beats provide a rhythm halfway between the steady breathing of sleep and a surprised, startled exhalation – if beats had mouths to form a perfect “O”, these would do so. Far from submerging herself into impersonal and inhuman soundscapes, Bjork uses the glitch to better capture her basic humanness, and the constant, beautiful fragility of everyday life.

The two most stunning songs on Vespertine – the near-ascension of “Undo” and the raw music box balladry of “Pagan Poetry” – don’t actually use glitches in their arrangements, but they are just as marked by glitch as a movement and methodology, not only in their lustrous tapestries of sound, but in their willingness to admit the presence of mistakes, and to reach past them towards beauty regardless. In the latter track, Bjork sings, “On the surface, simplicity, but dark currents beat in me.” It’s an apt description of Vespertine itself, which uses direct songwriting and the overwhelming largesse of orchestras, choirs and Bjork herself to partially – only partially – veil music as complex and fragile as human skin under a microscope.

On loop-finding-jazz-records, Jan Jelinek seems determined to show that mistakes can be beautiful, too – as formally pretty as if they weren’t mistakes at all. If something vital still somehow eludes him, it is because he manages to fulfil his aims so successfully. Glitch’s greatest promise – and one it only occasionally realises – lies in its capacity to achieve a wild humanity: a passionate intractability in the face of the demands of order, like a heart palpitating wildly under the constraints of reason.

Many refer to Vespertine as being merely the most accessible, commercially viable end of glitch as a movement. It is, however, also at the centre of a separate movement, which includes not only the artists at Schematic, but also the warm desire of Herbert and Luomo’s mistake-riddled house music, or the by turns foreboding and heartbreaking techno-pop of Cologne’s Kompakt label. These figures, though divergent in style, share a knowledge that emotions resemble cracked glass more readily than a smooth metallic visage, and that the robot is cut off from humanity most fundamentally in its inability to make mistakes; dissatisfied or impatient with the search for the soul within the machine, they have elected instead to locate its heart.

Tim Finney, 4 December 2001