Shakai Mondai - Bad

Faith Harding ponders the value of “soft” skills to the tune of the Philadelphia producer’s freeing EP.


In the introduction to Pink Noises, a compilation of interviews with women on electronic music and sound, editor Tara Rodgers outlines her own theory of the dominant history of electronic music. She begins with the Futurist manifesto as a widely accepted source of origin for sound experimentation, “a bold celebration of the sounds of machines, modern industry, and war.” This foundation, in her eyes, creates a springboard for later “colonialist discourses articulated to sounds in Cold War popular culture,” until we finally find ourselves here in the present, still witness to “the militaristic language that inflects contemporary music-production technology.”

“The persistent militaristic terminology and aesthetic priorities of rationalistic precision and control,” she continues, “epitomize notions of male technical competence and hard mastery in electronic music production. These have produced and been constituted by their opposite: non-technical or ‘soft’ knowledges and practices that are coded as female… these artists cultivate technological sophistication in their work, but stake out philosophical positions that run counter to using dominant technoscientific priorities of precision and control as ends in themselves.”

My first encounter with Rodgers’ ideas here—this distinction between “hard” and “soft” mastery, and her advocacy for the latter to have equal space for validation and acceptance—was revelatory for me. My mind immediately leapt to my experiences with Ableton: the cell-like grids, the digital metronome that tapped with the precision of an infantry march. I realized that my frustrations and limitations with the software, and the medium of electronic music in general, had stemmed from my rigid loyalty to its imposing structure, my unexamined belief that obeying its constraints, functioning solely within its bounds, was the only way to be a “good” electronic musician. This was the first time that I understood that one could (and perhaps should) explore outside of technology’s “rules,” that a sort of pacifist resistance against traditional standards of technical competence was not only okay, but perhaps the only path towards further development when all visible roads had turned into dead ends.

Listening to Bad, Shakai Mondai’s new EP on Odd Castles, I realized that, consciously or not, musician Rachel Ishikawa had recognized this alternative long before I had. The music on this release interacts with production and its possibilities in a manner that is so rarely heard nowadays. It relishes in constrictions and dilations of both rhythm and melody, and the intersection between them—things which, true, have been done before in production, but usually in a way that still furtively jumps through the hoops of know-how, reassuring the listener and the critic alike that these derivations from the norm still relate to—and thus respect—the norm. The music here, on the other hand, does not answer to anything but itself, and its own motivations—and this is where that “soft mastery” comes into play. Control is not a dominant vibe in these four songs, unless we are talking about the delicate, intricate play of influence between the musician and the music, which feels like a measured tightening, then loosening of reins—guiding, but not leading.

It’s all the more impressive to notice the moments where tropes of electronic music are implemented—for example, the four-on-the-floor on tracks “Jeff” and “Crawl”—and notice how even they feel like something not decided upon in any pre-meditated sense, but rather, happened upon in the midst of musical wandering. Nothing on this EP feels like a tip-of-the-hat, an homage, or even an appeal to anything else, and that is what makes it so refreshing. The listening experience is peaceful, dreamlike, and repeated listenings feel like returning to an increasingly familiar haven, a quarantine from restriction. It is not so much a forceful resistance against the standards of production, but a calm removal from it, a discovery of, as Rodgers writes, “an elsewhere within electronic music discourses: a space for mutual encounters between humans and technologies, between familiarity and otherness, that motivates wonder and a sense of possibility instead of rhetorics of combat and domination.” Shakai Mondai shows us that an elsewhere based in wonder and possibility, is truly a lovely elsewhere to be.

Bad is available digitally via Odd Castles.

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