[Feature] Classicwave – the Logical Extreme of Vaporwave
[Editor’s Note: This article is an editorial by vaporwave artist Meznoyume on “classicwave”. Sunbleach thanks Meznoyume for their contribution – if you are a producer, label owner or community member who would also like to submit an editorial, please feel welcome to reach out through the contact form. This articles does not necessarily reflect the views of Sunbleach]
As a genre largely situated on the Internet, vaporwave evolves quite quickly. Since its conception, this unique, largely plunderphonics-based electronic music genre has stemmed into at least ten new varieties including hardvapour, vaportrap, and even simpsonwave. One of the more recent movements to evolve out of vaporwave is classicwave, an offshoot of vaporwave made using samples of classical music. Many look to I WANT TO DIE BY CANDLELIGHT as being the original conception of the movement, but its seeds had been planted long before.
How does classicwave differ from vaporwave? In my essay comparing the aesthetic of the cultural practice of zen Buddhism with vaporwave, I demonstrated the connection between the elusive nature of vaporwave and the elusive nature of zen. Much like the zen experience, vaporwave is ambiguous and attempts to avoid thinking in terms of binary oppositions. This aspect is fundamental to the genre, and is far more of an aesthetic observation than a technical one.
That said, mystery is part of the essence of vaporwave, and mystery is fundamentally about masking definite intent. The meaning of vaporwave is never clear, and that lack of clarity is indeed the closest thing it has to meaning. This also holds true of the classicwave genre.
The Problem with Comparing Classicwave with Vaporwave
The idea that vaporwave is fundamentally mysterious ostensibly makes it difficult to connect classical music with the vaporwave genre, since the music of Europe’s classical tradition was for the most part harmonically and rhetorically very clear. The classical mindset necessitated clear forms, and an approach to composition that took into account the growth of ideas over a long period of time. The tastes of 18th century Germany, Austria, France, Italy, and England did not allow for ambiguity, which makes a translation into the atmosphere of vaporwave difficult.
Another obstacle for classicwave is the lack of context for modern day listeners. While anyone can easily hear the difference between a jazz sample and a funk sample, the same cannot be said today of the difference between, say, a fugue and a cannon, or a serenade and a symphony. Our contemporary and popular musical literacy is not the same, and as a result classical music aurally tends to be grouped together as a singular entity by most listeners – unless of course the listener is already familiar with the piece, time frame, or composer. However, while it won’t mean much for most listeners whether you sample a string quartet or a piano trio, most will definitely know the identify the difference between Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and Ravel’s Bolero even if they’re not specifically familiar with their respective eras.
These issues can be overcome if we expand our definition of classicwave to the broader, more popular usage of the word “classical”. While the technical use of the term refers to art music of 18th century Europe, in common parlance, “classical: simply refers to any kind of art music in the European tradition – encompassing everything from Bach to Toru Takemitsu. This broader definition has many virtues, and expands the palette of the classicwave artist immensely.
At its best, classicwave succeeds at capturing the ambiguity of vaporwave. Rather than being sensitive to classical harmonic structures, a classicwave artist should take a cue from Macintosh Plus and chop samples to create an eerie disconnect with the source material. It is the act of capturing elements from “serious” musical works and turning them into evocative, moody soundscapes that makes up the craft of classicwave. To that end, classicwave exists in a nebulous and terribly unmarketable zone, between “serious” music and “popular” music. When dealing with the original source material, the important part is not so much the original sample but how the inherent ambiguity of the original sample is drawn out, and transformed into a completely new aesthetic object.
Examples of Classicwave
While most tend to associate classicwave with Meznoyume and mew_t8’s collaborative album I WANT TO DIE BY CANDLELIGHT for Flamingo Vapor, there are many examples of albums in the vaporwave genre that steer away from the 80s adult contemporary, muzak, and pop repertoire, and incorporate more orchestral sounds into their mix. While not all of these examples can strictly be considered classicwave, they still feature elements characteristic of the genre, and many contain seeds for what would later develop into contemporary classicwave.
The album Memories of Old Friends and Days Past by Memoirs on the label FANTASY DELUXE explores the idea of a pre-WWII musical aesthetic, in a popular jazz context. It explores the nostalgia of early recordings and might by that standard be considered classicwave. However, the album does not draw upon classical music recordings. One of the fundamental differences between classicwave and vaporwave is that classicwave draws its source material from art music rather than popular music. Nevertheless, Memories differs from most albums in the vaporwave genre and presents a unique approach to finding sample material.
“Ｃａｓｔｌｅ Ｏｆ Ｍｉｒｒｏｒｓ” from Ｓｐｏｒｔ３０００’s self-released full-length Ｄａｒｋ Ｓｙｓｔｅｍ is definitely a work that can be considered classicwave, as it uses the same looped classical sample to create a foreboding and obsessive mood. “Ｃａｓｔｌｅ Ｏｆ Ｍｉｒｒｏｒｓ” transforms its source material into something with a completely new atmosphere, encouraging a new kind of engagement with listeners.
The album 该水总把它带走 by W ̄ ̄ mostly features sample manipulation of modern, classically-inspired compositions, such as arrangements of Studio Ghibli movie scores (of the variety you hear tinkering in the back of ramen restaurants). Despite not drawing strictly upon classical material, the synth and reverb heavy texture of this album could serve as a useful reference for classicwave artists looking for a sound world to emulate, fusing together the soundworld of the 80s with something closer to an art music sensibility.
慈悲深い by Zadig the Jasp is a wonderful and sublime example of classicwave, in which, for many of its tracks, sacred Catholic chants are subjected to a number of digital effects in order to produce a union of tradition and a contemporary, digital/noise aesthetic. While not every track on the album draws from classical sources, with many of the tracks being produced from popular music sources, the work in general could be used as a model for artists interested in exploring the classicwave genre, and seeing the potentials of manipulating art music for a new aesthetic purpose.
Classicwave as an Epic Genre
Vaporwave as it currently stands derives much of its aesthetic charm from the naivete of the 1980s and 90s, ages not yet dully acquainted with the revolution of communicative technology that would define the early 2000s. It is by investigating these naive periods that vaporwave explores our relationship with technology, as if to be antiquated is to be mythologized. We draw references to early Macintosh models for the same psychological purpose we invoke Jupiter and Venus when writing epic poetry, or lending a sense of tradition to our brand names. For example, in vaporwave it is common to see statements about social disorders, depression, and isolation being juxtaposed against visuals of anachronistic 80s and 90s technology. Vaporwave uses the past to try and make an emotional connection with the present.
Classicwave has the potential to take the epic contrast further. The art music tradition is essentially an epic tradition, producing works intended to stand the test of time, and produce deep reactions in an audience that transcend immediate gratification. By applying contemporary standards to works of the classical past, classicwave is able to mold the past into an image that makes more sense to us, and by doing so allow ourselves to develop a deeper connection with our present. The album I WANT TO DIE BY CANDELIGHT touches upon this even in its title, evocative of a nostalgia for an era before electricity. The album title evokes the limitless, dark void of death through the lens of an earlier, darker age – a theme also explored in its sound content.
There is still so much untapped potential in the classicwave genre. As of yet, music producers have only begun to scratch the surface of the artistic potential of classicwave. I would love to see the genre flourish, seeking new ways of connecting the sheer power of our deep musical past with the present age. There is an immense catalogue of classical music out there, just waiting for our exploration, appropriation, and mutation. Classicwave is a necessary compliment to the vaporwave genre, reminding us that our aesthetic heritage dates back much farther than the 1980s, and that there is an immense creative power in appropriating the sounds that made our world what it is today.