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Home / Music / From Lowercase to Vaporwave, five music micro-genres you should know about

From Lowercase to Vaporwave, five music micro-genres you should know about

Composers are using software to pack millions of notes together, amplify unheard sounds and turn glitches into tunes.

music Updated: Jan 18, 2020 18:23 IST
Vanessa Viegas
Vanessa Viegas
Hindustan Times
Vaporware has its own style of album art, which draws on early internet imagery, late 1990s web design, anime and Greco-Roman statues, as seen above in the cover art for Floral Shoppe (2011), which is considered the first music album in the genre.
Vaporware has its own style of album art, which draws on early internet imagery, late 1990s web design, anime and Greco-Roman statues, as seen above in the cover art for Floral Shoppe (2011), which is considered the first music album in the genre.

If you had to hazard a guess, how many music genres would you say exist today? There’s pop, rock, jazz and folk, R&B, hip hop... classical music, the blues, EDM.

But that’s not taking into account computer programming and the internet — which have combined to diversify and fragment music into hundreds of micro-genres.

In addition to making music distribution seamless and virtually free, technology has made the production of music a lot easier now. “You can literally burp into a mic and turn it into a beat,” says music producer and rapper Tanmay Saxena aka Tienas.

And so you have indie musicians ‘mining’ their own music genres, and giving them (rather absurd) hashtag-able names like Fallen Angel, Charred Death, Deepfilth Step and Skwee. Here are five micro-genres we thought you should know about.

Cloud Rap: American rapper Lil B reportedly coined the term while attempting to create a kind of rap that sounded, he said, “like a castle floating in the clouds”. Soon, bloggers, music critics and indie artists were identifying other tunes that fit into this genre of dream-like sonic sounds. Artists such as internet sensation Yung Lean began to identify as Cloud Rappers. This is a genre that was born on the internet and nurtured on SoundCloud. 

An offshoot of hip-hop, Cloud Rap emerged as a result of a new kind of synthesiser that allowed hip-hop to be mixed with lo-fi, hazy, ambient music. Its notes are often elongated to produce a surreal sound with an upbeat feel and vocals that are almost chant-like (rather than staccato).

Even though Lil B was its creator, Cloud Rap is commonly said to have achieved mainstream status with the emergence of A$AP Rocky in 2011, and his mixtape, Live. Love. A$AP.

Vaporwave: This genre will sound familiar, because it’s defined by the sounds of ’80s and ’90s consumer culture. It’s part nostalgia, part appropriation — snatches of jingles, Muzak, and tunes from ads and TV shows, are pitch-shifted to create a newish composition that sounds distinctly different; darker and more layered. 

You can now find Vaporwave music on YouTube and Spotify. Artists to check out include Blank Banshee; producer and graphic artist Ramona Xavier aka Macintosh Plus and Vektroid whose 2011 album, Floral Shoppe, is considered the first-ever Vaporwave album.

“For many of us, it’s about analogue nostalgia,” says Amandeep Singh Multani aka Profound, 26, who is among the handful of Vaporwave artists in India. “I make Vaporwave because the internet is as much a part of me as the ’90s were. So it represents, wholly, where I come from.”

Black MIDI: This is a form of electronic music you can’t dance to and one that will never make it to the club scene. It’s meant for those who like the experimental, and think of music as a form of abstract art.

Blackers or Black MIDI artists pack so many millions of notes into their compositions that the score appears completely black.
Blackers or Black MIDI artists pack so many millions of notes into their compositions that the score appears completely black.

Black MIDI is typically created by composers who are also software programmers. The notes are arranged in software programmes, so close together that the musical score looks black (hence the name). The tunes are typically played on a piano, and can sound like a lot of angry Mozarts playing together; the sound is high-pitched, fast-paced, but maintains a rhythmic melody and progression. The community exists solely on YouTube and call themselves the Blackers.

Black MIDI can be traced back to Japanese composers in 2009; two years later, YouTuber kakakakaito1998 released the oldest such tune out there. Most Blackers pride themselves on the number of notes in their compositions — which typically run into the millions for a song of five-minute duration — and often leave the count in their comments section.

Lowercase: Originally coined by American sound and visual artist, Steve Roden, who calls himself a ‘minimal artist’, Lowercase is music created out of everyday ambient sounds that usually go unheard — amplified to extreme levels. Roden popularised the movement when he was commissioned by the Los Angeles Public Library to create an album in 2001 that captured the noises inside a public library. He created Forms of Paper, a 54-minute track made up of the sounds of his hands playing with paper (the album is available on Spotify).

Steven Roden at work, the artist behind Lowercase.
Steven Roden at work, the artist behind Lowercase. ( Randy Yau )

In his words, “it’s music that bears a certain sense of quiet and humility; it does not demand attention, it must be discovered… it’s the opposite of capital letters — loud things which draw attention to themselves.” If you’d like to sample some Lowercase tunes, look for Alva Noto, Sawako and Steve Roden on Spotify, and Bernhard Gunter on Jio Saavn.

Glitch: This genre was founded on the “aesthetic of failure”, and deliberately makes use of audio samples containing technical glitches. As computer-aided composition began to grow, the canvas of possible soundscapes widened. In addition to sequenced percussion, synth and samples, and intentional sounds — when it came to filling in gaps — digital glitches began to be used. These include the sounds of a skipping of discs, a beat stutter, pitched reverses, electric hums, hardware noises or even just the vinyl’s hiss and scratch.

New music software actually helps create such glitches and errors for music producers. A major exponent of the genre is the LA-based Flying Lotus, who performed at NH7 Weekender in 2015. An increasingly popular offshoot of this genre is Glitch Hop, which uses elements of glitch mixed with hip-hop.