Sean Norris

The Proper Decoding is an essay that I intitially wrote for a university assignment, an abridged version of which was published in the innaugural print issue of Texture Magazine
Full text, as it appeared in the magazine: dataplex is a component of an ongoing body of work by Ryoji Ikeda called datamatics, described by the artist as “a series of experiments in various forms…that seek to materialise pure data.” dataplex is an album of music comprised of what Ikeda calls “sound in its raw state,” i.e. pure sine tones and noise. I am writing about dataplex, in short, because I like it.
But also because I’ve struggled to articulate why I like it in a way that feels sufficiently informed/legitimated. I maintain these weird internal strata of methods of musical digestion, initialised when I was teenager categorising musical streams into a false dichotomy of what I would have pretentiously (and without merit) deemed banal pop music and music worth listening to. My categorisations were usually wrong, but these boundaries were nonetheless initialised. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There’s a lot to be gained from a more academic view of music and, in the face of an unfathomable amount of it, some kind of filter is necessary. But implicit in a stratification of approaches to music is a dismissal of the unmediated, individualistic emotional experience in favour of legitimated exegeses.
The consequence of this is a lexicon of musical theory lacking in terminology to handle works that reject analysis with harmony/melody/technique, etc. and desire interaction and communication with and through emotional affect. With this conflict in mind, I’m going to acknowledge that maybe writing seriously about how a thing makes me feel is naive, but I’m also going to try to justify that naivety and claim that it’s actually okay, that it’s an effective way of unpacking a work of art. To understand why dataplex in particular refuses to be productively analysed academically, we first have to better understand the dichotomy between casual listening and critical analysis.

The strata of art analysis are extant under varyingly appropriate names, but tend to fall on either side of the boundary between “educated” art appreciators, and “uneducated” art experiencers. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu tends to favour the former, arguing that the differences in art appreciation between “cultured” and “uncultured” classes have to do with how a work is decoded. He writes about the expectation for a “cultured” work to be rife with explicit symbolism, the decoding of which elucidates its meaning. In making such a claim, he simultaneously condemns appreciation of art through any less academic means, specifically stating that the understanding of a work through emotional responses without legitimated justification could only be mistaken as a “proper decoding” of the work.
John Berger describes this dichotomy with a contrasting tone in his book Ways of Seeing. He articulates his frustrations with the almost exclusive focus that art critique places on the matters of technique and form, school, genre, while neglecting to talk about the “lived experience” of art, its “emotional charge.” Art described with these concrete terms is completely paralysed. The objectification necessary in empirically scrutinising the work narrows the gaze of the viewer to the art’s inert material. And this gets directly at the failures of musical analysis in the face of dataplex. In dissecting the body of Ikeda’s work with the thinking tools provided by music theory, I would wind up with a collection of fastidiously documented and meticulously categorised chunks of inanimate meat; the work thoroughly deconstructed and utterly misunderstood.

The problem is exacerbated with the assumption that those chunks of meat contain anything intrinsic to the meaning of the piece at all. In her book Rationalising Culture, Georgina Born, an anthropologist and music sociologist, establishes a definition of the concept of “nonrepresentational art.” She articulates the differences between representational media (e.g. painting, photography, sculpture, film), which can show literal depictions of things, and nonrepresentational media, of which music is the clearest example. She explains that unlike representational media, the meaning of which can be found in either the method or content of its depictions, music’s only true meaning is in its connotation.
While Born’s point here may be accurate, maybe it’s an unfair characterisation. Music theory has been the fundamental quasi-scientific language of music for centuries, and it can enable high levels of musical signification. But in either case, whereas much other music can be transcribed and subsequently analysed with established music theory, dataplex is further nonrepresentational in that the results of any attempt to transcribe it tend to obfuscate rather than elucidate. Transcription might result in graphs of frequencies and metered clicks which, although structurally engaging, would not be receptive to analysis with music theory. The more concrete the analysis of dataplex, the less useful it is.
If due to its nonrepresentational nature, analysis of dataplex with music theory can be considered both inapposite and inadequate, we could instead widen our gaze to look at the cloud of ideas surrounding it. Born also describes the disparate, metaphorical response we have to music, stressing that although we naturally describe music with feelings and non-musical ideas, none of our terminology is actually “in” or “a part of” the music itself. This realisation is significant because, as Born states, “it is then the forms of talk, text, and theory that surround music - the metaphors, representations, and rhetoric explaining and constructing it - that may be liable to analysis.” This is especially applicable to Ikeda’s works, for surrounding dataplex is a collage of writing, visual animation, and installation art.
Born posits the idea that the diameter of the musical object does not stop at the music itself; it extends to encompass interrelated media, culture, persons, etc., in orbit of a musical centre. This is especially pertinent to dataplex, where the ideas of the piece are not expressed solely through the music, if expressed through the music at all. What the music instead establishes is an aesthetic, in reference to other aesthetic-expressing medias in the series datamatics. Therefore no singular component of datamatics, least of all its musical components, can be considered to be the origin or source of the concept of the piece. What is needed is a wider field of vision in the approach to a discussion of a musical work.

The thesis of dataplex is not what draws me to it. It just feels good to experience. It's viscerally arresting. It's crunchy and fruity and bitter like chocolate covered coffee beans, and I like chocolate covered coffee beans. Repeated listenings of it are like answering a phone call to hear the voice of a friend from when you were a child. It's strikingly familiar and nostalgically comforting, but with distance it has grown foreign, so that you are wrapped in simultaneous feelings of intimacy and unfamiliarity. In the opening section, data.index, we're conversationally introduced to the sound palette. High pitched tones at the edge of human hearing grab our attention, making us turn our head in effort to discern whether the album has started or whether a wire has come loose in our speakers. Then, before we can really figure it out, we're met with percussive white noise bursts interspersed with distorted sine tones, as if we're listening to the album coming online via a dial-up connection. Then, clicking chatter talks us through to the next moment, where a drumming synthesis element reminds us that this is in fact a musical experience that we're embarking on. And the moment we've begun to grow comfortable with that conclusion, we're in data.simplex, our eyes pulling backwards into digital brains full of humming machinery and gently chirping components.

While it is worthwhile to contextualise an artist's work in order to better understand it, it is equally worthwhile to examine our motivation for doing so. If our only reason is intellectual stimulation, then the process of listening to music is reduced to the dichotomy suggested by Bourdieu, that of either cultured decoding or uncultured denotation. What we need to do is get as close to the objective perspective as necessary in order to grow more intimate with the artist and the work, but in doing so find ourselves better equipped to simply, fluently, enjoy it.