Sunday, October 30, 2016

Tycho: ambient music for those who are succeeding in our contemporary economy?

Cover art for new Tycho LP "Epoch"
There's a moment roughly 30 seconds into "Montana," the second track on Tycho's breakout 2014 album Awake, when you realize that the people who created this music can't possibly have experienced any adversity in their lives. For nearly 6 minutes, its mannerist, echo-ey guitar noodling melds with hazy synths and just noticeable bass over competent live drumming. It sounds great, the type of warm, organic electronic music that makes you feel as though the world is a place of unsullied wonder filled with promise and opportunity and absolutely lacking in the structural hurtles that have come to define our political moment. The euphoria it inspires is the pleasant, genteel kind bi-coastal types get from legal marijuana, a euphoria from which you can quickly sober up before heading back to your six-figure tech job, not the Rimbaudian sensorium-fucking kind which, though you might survive it, you will not come out of it whole.

If you like Tycho, chances are you can probably afford pour-over coffee
It's the perfect sonic backdrop for an otherwise soundless drive down the Haight in your Tesla Model S, music for you to survey the real estate market you and your vaunted friends and coworkers can afford because you have the privileged backgrounds that yield expensive STEM degrees and commensurate employment. It would do well scoring an ad for a smartphone, one in which technologies such as video chat are highlighted for full emotional impact. It's music for convincing yourself that the TED talk you just listened to in some way provided you personal and/or professional validation, or that the product you are building is making the world a better place.

Like Google's product sites or the Android operating system, the impressive cover art for both Awake and the just released Epoch have an appealing design language. They constitute collateral worthy of the Silicon Valley juggernauts, of adorning the website of a new feature in a vanguard social network or serving as the icon for a marquee app. Unsurprisingly, Scott Hansen, who helms the Tycho project, is an accomplished Bay Area designer and graphic artist. I've seen the cover art from Awake on t-shirts worn by tech workers walking to lunch in Pioneer Square, largely indistinguishable from the rest of their wardrobe comprising shirts featuring the products and companies they build. According to The Verge, Scott now brings his designer talents to bear solely for his music, ensuring elegant packaging and consistency of design across media.

Despite the above, I take no particular issue with Tycho, Scott Hansen, or his studio band, but rather, with the ineffable notion that the Silicon Valley set have incorporated his music into the infinite feedback loop of celebration and validation that has come to distinguish our contemporary tech economy. His brand of instrumental, organic electronic music, in its pleasantness and saccharine excesses, just happens to sound like what the tech industry wants to hear, i.e., a soundtrack to harmonize with its incrementalist vision of utopia by way of elegant automating technologies. Theirs is a world view that claims comprehensiveness yet is pointedly myopic - the benefits of the automation they build predominantly vest in the privileged among us who can afford the underlying enabling technologies (smartphones, home automation appliances, etc.). Their efforts do very little to tackle serious domestic and global issues: affordable housing, extreme poverty, climate change, and treatment of disease (other than fraudulently). As such, they largely fail to engage with contemporary society in the ways in which we could really use them (i.e., to bring technology to bear in solving our biggest problems). It isn't that the accomplishments of Google, Facebook, etc. aren't worth celebrating, but rather, that they believe so fully in the narrative of their own altruism that they are constantly celebrating and validating themselves.

Tycho is the perfect music for such a mindset -- it's the music of maximum complacency in an era of technology that doesn't dream big enough. We need to be much less complacent, much less invested in validation, and much more focused on the broader social landscape in which technology can be an enabler for positive change.