by Bob Linder

Seth Price’s Title Variable is a project without an image, or at least without iconic images tying it to something specific. This elision allows it to fall through the cracks and become fragmented in a complicated way. Title Variable is amateur while remaining professional, exists online while physically printed, and is distributed in various audio formats. It is a mixed-media artwork based on material that becomes “just content,” foregrounding the process of how material is given meaning.

In Title Variable, Price cites the goal of talking about music, youth, subculture, subversion, and nostalgia in a distanced way. He creates a series of audio compilations, concentrating on pivotal but vague moments in musical history. These compilations are packaged and released in various formats, some with alternative titles. Available in museum bookstores, record shops, or online, some comps are inexpensive, while others have been produced for collectors as limited-edition art objects. To accompany them, Price writes essays that are published in various magazines and range greatly in style and voice. Although he mentions not wanting to link Title Variable to any specific musical genre, Price creates many overt associations; in the following text, I lay out a timeline that fills in some of the holes created in Title Variable’s wake.

From the 1970s into the 1980s, Progressive-Rock musicians released successful synthesizer-led instrumental albums. These records helped influence the emergence of New Wave and other subgenres such as Synth-Pop, Post-Punk, No Wave, and Techno. The Punk phenomenon of the 1970s created a challenge to the monopoly of established recording studios, giving young performers the confidence to record and go live with relatively unpolished acts.

The Punk subculture emerged in the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States in the mid-1970s. Exactly which region originated Punk has long been a matter of controversy. In the late 1970s, the subculture began to diversify, which led to the proliferation of factions such as Oi!, 2 Tone, New Wave, Post-Punk, and Hardcore. The Punk subculture influenced other underground styles, such as Alternative, Indie Rock, Crossover, Thrash, Queercore, and extreme subgenres of Heavy Metal.

Punk bands typically produced short or fast-paced songs, with hard-edged melodies and aggressive singing styles, stripped-down instrumentation, and often, political, anti-establishment lyrics. Punk embraced a DIY ethic; many bands self-produced recordings and distributed them through informal channels, i.e. cassette exchange. Price often refers to the Punk period as protest music, comparing punks to hippies.

New Wave differs from Punk as it displays characteristics common to pop music, rather than the more "artsy" Post-Punk. Although New Wave incorporates much of the original Punk sound and ethos, it exhibits greater complexity in both music and lyrics. Common characteristics of New Wave music include choppy rhythm guitars with fast tempos and synthesizers. Vocals sound jittery, high-pitched, and erratic. While gathering commercial success, New Wave artists created an aesthetic that had a slight bend towards the future.

Post-Punk, originally called New Musick, emerged from the Punk movement; artists departed from the traditional Garage Rock template of Punk to pursue a variety of radical sensibilities. Emboldened by Punk's energy, but determined to break from Rock cliché and subvert conventions, Post-Punk artists experimented with sources such as electronic music, black dance styles, Jamaican Dub, and the Avant-Garde, as well as recording technologies and new production techniques.

No Wave, a parallel to Post-Punk, was a short-lived Avant-Garde scene that emerged in the late 1970s in downtown New York City. The term "No Wave" was a pun based on the rejection of commercial New Wave. No Wave probably also was inspired by French New Wave pioneer Claude Chabrol, with his remark, "There are no waves, only the ocean."(1) No Wave music presented a negative and nihilistic world-view, rejecting the recycling of traditional Rock aesthetics, such as Blues-Rock and Chuck Berry-style guitar riffs in Punk and New Wave music. Various groups drew on, or explored, such disparate styles as Funk, Free-Jazz, Disco, and the Avant-Garde.

The No Wave movement lasted a relatively short time, but it profoundly influenced the development of independent film, fashion, and visual art. This music, especially in the original releases, generally had a DIY aesthetic in the genre's original production era of cassette tapes (mentioned because almost everything has been re-released on vinyl). Many of these emerging artists composed in their bedrooms and garages and then distributed works through cassette exchanges, bypassing the major vinyl producers and giving rise to the cassette culture of the 1980’s.

Filmmakers Coleen Fitzgibbon and Alan Moore created a short film in 1978 (finished in 2009) of a No Wave show benefiting X Magazine that documents performances by DNA, James Chance and the Contortions, and Boris Policeband. Shot in black and white Super 8 and edited on video, the film was exhibited in 2013 at Salon 94. These genres—Post-Punk, No Wave, and later Minimal Wave—incorporated new technologies, including cheaper synthesizers, leading to the popular expansion of electronic music styles.

The wider availability of synthesizers and digital programming was a radical change for a younger generation of artists and musicians, who could suddenly explore in ways that previously had been available only to academics. In Redistribution, Price mentions 18-year-olds having access to this equipment: “But it wasn’t really until a bit later that samplers became cheap enough for 18-year-olds without a lot of resources, and that’s when you really start to get all the experimental musics of the period: techno, the spread of rap, etc.

In Aeternam Vale, France 1983
In Aeternam Vale, France 1983

In the 1980s pop and dance music made heavy use of synthesizers, facilitated by invention of the relatively inexpensive, mass-market Yamaha digital DX7. The DX7 synthesizer swept through popular music, leading to the adoption and development of digital synthesizers in many forms, as well as to the rapid decline of analog synthesizer technology.

The Roland TB-303, Roland TR-808, and Roland TR-909 synthesizers were heavily used in the production of early Acid House, Techno, and Hip Hop dance tracks. The 909 was one of the first Roland instruments to be equipped with MIDI, linking it to a computer, which controlled the drum pads, sequencers, etc. Many dance records were released as white-label promos or LP test pressings before becoming commercial pressings. Some of these LPs would never see the commercial light of day, causing them to receive a fetishized status, as artists sold these white-label LPs without any packaging. In Title Variable, Price talks about not wanting his musical releases to have any specific packaging—a move that echoes the already commonplace behavior in his community.

The use of synthesizers, drum machines, and grassroots distribution methods helped fuel underground techno genres such as Gabber, Jungle, Breakcore, and Splattercore—some of which crossed over into commercial success. Hardcore dance tracks typically included samples and synthesized melodies, with the tempo generally ranging from 150 to 190 ppm (very fast!). During this time period things seem to be speeding forward rapidly; this is the highway toward the Internet.

Gabber, also know as Gabber House, is a Dutch style of electronic music. Although a House variant from Detroit (cited as the birthplace of techno), Gabber reached Amsterdam in the 1980s, and it was Dutch producers and DJs who evolved it into the harder house variant that is today known as Gabber. The essence of this early Hardcore sound is a distorted bass drum sample, overdriven to the point of becoming clipped into a distorted square-wave and making a recognizably melodic tone. Often the Roland Alpha Juno synthesizer, or the kick from a Roland TR-909, was used to create this sound, and lyrics were frequently screamed, pitch-shifted and distorted, and later, computer-generated.

As Price explores in his work, many of these pre-Internet sounds also bridge into post-Internet music. Analog sounds recorded and collected on cassette, vinyl, and compact disk are later transferred and catalogued onto the web using P2P file-sharing platforms such as Napster, Limewire, Kazaa, and Soulseek, only to become further physically recollected and re-released back onto vinyl and cassette. Current musical sound, production, and distribution are constantly reaching back into history in order to move forward. Maybe the past keeps coming back because the present cannot be remembered?

Bill Jenkins, "CD Stack 4," 2013
Bill Jenkins, "CD Stack 4," 2013

In conclusion, I’m not sure the Price compilations or the accompanying Price essays are “good,” at least in terms of listening. I’m also not sure how to contextualize the information I have laid out here in terms of a contemporary timeframe. Is this timeline just doing the same thing Price is doing in his musical projects—trying to talk about a past that was formative to us in some way? It seems to me that we could continue on and on, commenting on artists and production techniques that have changed the way we look at and listen to audio information and the culture that surrounds it.

Artists today are making music in new ways that are specific to the moment. Young artists and listeners have online communities that support and sustain online labels, giving the artists working within these networks freedom to create, record, share, and maintain multiple projects under the same or alternative titles, without ever having to create a physical product. We live in a time when young artists upload and immediately receive millions of plays on SoundCloud. No one was counting how many times a Punk song on a cassette was played. We’re in a time when there is so much information moving at such a rapid pace that we are unable to keep track of what is…what.


Bob Linder is Head Curator at The David Ireland House at 500 Capp Street. He also co-owns and directs CAPITAL a contemporary art gallery located in the Mission District of San Francisco. Linder received his BFA from The San Francisco Art Institute in 1998 and his MFA from Stanford University in 2002.

(1) This quote causes me to consider the film/video work by Price titled, Koln Waves/Blues, 2005-2008.