Culture Music

Selva City by Big Phone

The relationship between the tech industry and dance music has never been stronger than in 2016. The bedroom hacker is now the bedroom DJ, a quick jump from torrenting Ableton to topping Soundcloud. Edward Snowden of all people released a techno track with Jean-Michel Jarre this April. As music technology develops and disseminates at rapid rates, the production world becomes more and more creatively inclined and vice versa, and EDM finally has the opportunity to be intellectualized the way all popular cultural music eventually finds its place within “art.” For electronic artists who pride themselves on creative sampling (Matmos’ album constructed entirely from field recordings of washing machines comes to mind) or on a background knowledge of physics (The Range cites his study of black hole physics as key to his musicianship), the identities of “creative” and “techie” are further and further fused together until they become almost inseparable. Why, then, shouldn’t a Google machine-intelligence designer-slash-prototyper revive Seattle’s electronic scene with calculated yet hallucinatory, hazy yet fully danceable, and intelligent yet disorienting techno music?

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Enter Kenric McDowell, operating under the moniker Big Phone. Following a move from New York City to Seattle in 2012, he would seemingly fit in with the wave of “brogrammers” flooding the Northwestern city with suits, tablets, and ping pong tables à la Silicon Valley. But McDowell’s musical work aligns much more with the experience of club drugs, of virtual reality, and of South American healing by shamans. At Google, McDowell and his team use computer vision and object-recognition algorithms to generate psychedelic hallucinatory experiences. Through his music, the artist jumbles field recordings from the Peruvian Amazon with more mathematical techno beats, combing them over with elongated, almost metallic, ambient sound creations. The result is an otherworldly, fluidly woven, musical path that seems to guide its listener both through the jungle–la selva–and through the interior of the brain.  

Big Phone’s latest release is the epitome of this translucent, ephemeral journey. Selva City is best heard with eyes closed and space to sway. Released on McDowell’s own label, Green Orb Artifacts, the record is sold with custom incense from Incausa to complete the musical construction of a hypnotic, sense-encompassing environment. McDowell conceived the album in the Peruvian jungle, and describes the sound-field of the place as “a continuous 360° maximalist opera of bleeps and caws and phasing weirdness.” As a former New Yorker, McDowell connected the jungle of NYC to this new jungle in the Amazon, explaining that “when we place ourselves in a sacred concrete jungle like NYC, parts of our brains and bodies go to sleep, and others wake up. Selva City is meant to appeal to the deep and primal parts of ourselves that awaken in a place like the Amazon,” and it certainly accomplishes this not just because of its use of field recordings (including synthesized insects and birds), but because its strategic elongation of sounds forms a type of physical space. “As a human, I want it all, natural connection, cultural genius, heartfelt communication, raucous sarcasm, erotic force, and transcendent style,” says McDowell. “In the Selva City of my dreams, it’s all there and open 24 hours.”

McDowell’s music is both grounded in earthly sensation and elevated by a sense of distorted consciousness. The rhythmic warmth of Selva City belongs in a rave with sense-stimulating drugs as much as it owes these qualities to notions of foreign healing and meditation. “The mestizo shamanic musical tradition of Peru appeals to my innate cultural hybridity as a mixed race person,” McDowell explains. In an earlier interview with The Stranger, the artist was careful to acknowledge, “We’re talking about colonized cultures, and we take their most sacred practices and apply them to our dance parties,” which is on the surface level, quite problematic. “At the same time,” he says, “there is a connection, and it’s music-making and healing and collective experiences. And intoxication by some means… or destabilization of your ordinary state of consciousness” that occurs in both dance party culture and in post-colonial South American shaman culture. He suggests, “If musicians are interested in that realm, then going to those people in their own environment and understanding their own practices on their own terms is probably the best route to not being superficial.” This is really significant to the non-white, non-American listener, who sees rave and EDM culture grab at practically anything non-Western and appropriate it. But what McDowell is doing is different–it is self-aware, and it is vocally grateful to Peruvian culture and nature for both the literal sounds he’s taken from it, and for the experiences he’s trying to translate. “Within various ritual structures, this type of repetitive music heals with its trance-inducing power,” he says of indigenous musical healing in the shamanic tradition. “It is driving, emotional, ancient, otherworldly: alien in the best possible way. These are all qualities I want my own music to embody.” Selva City’s thumping club beats littered with the “crazy noises” of bugs are certainly transportative in this sense, and the soothing sounds of the jungle negate the pumped-up aggression of other EDM artists.

Selva City is truly an album for the 2016 world–and post-2016 world to be sure–as McDowell finds us each “personally responsible for understanding and dealing with the complexity of social, ecological, and technological reality” in this new era. “Sound is a carrier of intention,” he says. With Selva City, McDowell’s goal is to “carefully unpack the latent healing potential of techno music and its structures, down to the harmonic ratios of individual notes.” It is to preserve the natural beauty of Peruvian sounds and express them with enough space for freedom of feeling for its listeners. And this is all accomplished through technology, of course. Lest we forget that McDowell was first a programmer and machine-intelligence designer, we would quickly be reminded by the technical skill and ever-present metal quality of Selva City’s machine-produced drums. As leader of Google’s Artists and Machine Intelligence program, which looks at computers as tools for creation, in the same way that the technological developments of painting pigments, the printing press, and photography once expanded the creative space available to humans. Artists come in to collaborate with engineers and researchers who work on artificial or machine intelligence projects. McDowell says of his place in the program, “I exist at the border of the very exciting and complex worlds of tech and art, working as a kind of translator.” In this period of rapid technological development and change, “art is the most advanced tool we have for adjusting our consciousness to the hypercomplex reality that unfolds in the 21st century,” he explains. “Put another way, we need models for how to interact with intelligent systems. My goal is for our program to create those, and to steer the techno-ship with symbols and affects.”

Selva City is nothing less than a representation of this desire. It is one of these models–in its own way–of the relationship between reality and technology as translated through art. It allows for both a subjective experience in listening and also a directed and contrived feeling of wholeness and belonging with the space around you. Its aim is to create a certain atmosphere, accomplished only with the combination of technological skill and access that McDowell has, as a Google designer. Perhaps this truly is the future–this cross-over of artificial intelligence and personal expression. Perhaps these programs are the new paint, and Selva City one of the movement’s original sketches. 

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