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Electronic wunderkind Nicolas Jaar and I sit facing each other in a glass-fronted London café, connected by a small aluminum cube on the table between us. Both of our headphones are plugged into it as it plays the fragmented melodies and tactile textures that characterize the immersive, detail-rich music released on Jaar's Clown & Sunset label. It's a startlingly intimate moment: The cube creates a self-contained musical world for two people to lose themselves in, a kind of escapism from the distractions of quotidian life.
The cube, Jaar's creation, is called the Prism; its first release, already sold out, is the Clown & Sunset compilation Don't Break My Love. With it, Jaar, who grew up in New York and Santiago, asks questions about how music-delivery systems affect a listener's experience—and reacts against a few assumptions that have come to define the default mode of consumption. Consumer choice and convenience have driven the digital-music industry: iTunes libraries, Last.fm profiles, and Spotify playlists present a homogeneous backdrop that can be filled in with each listener's own customized taste.
That approach has undoubted positives—but some artists, like Jaar, want to wrest back a measure of control. The Prism contains no track numbers but is controlled by four unmarked buttons. "On an iPod, you can say, 'That's the seventh track, it's called this; this is my rating for it; press play,'" says Jaar. "Here it's like, how did that song start again? And you're trying to find it. And that's beautiful, because it means you're listening."
The concept began when Jaar first held the CD pressings of his debut album, last year's Space Is Only Noise, and was left cold. "I didn't feel I was holding what the music was—just a piece of plastic that had been engineered to be quickly distributed," he explains. "I started having an itch to create something where the actual form of the object talked about the music." Hence the Prism, with a gleaming silver exterior that mirrors the glacial (both wintry and slow-moving) music contained within. All the songs within are collaborations, and the double headphone jack means that, according to Jaar, "If you plug into it alone, you feel the absence of this other person." Both of these feed into Jaar's central conception of a song as "not just time passing, but a tiny space."
Entirely self-designed and self-financed, the creation of the Prism—which retails for $40—was arduous. "To get it to this level of simplicity so it doesn't have a thousand buttons of stupid shit was complicated," says Jaar, who is keen to emphasize that the finished product is "not a merchandise item, with a laugh—I wanted it to be like a sculpture." The London electronic musician and singer-songwriter Gwilym Gold can empathize. Last May, Gold housed his debut solo single, "Flesh Freeze," in an application called Bronze, where an algorithm generates endless permutations of the track's parts. The song will never be played in the same way twice.
It was hailed as "revolutionary" at launch, but Gold went quiet for the rest of the year: Even with his album completed and "ready to go" in Bronze, logistical quibbles remained. "We had quite a few problems with Apple," Gold says. "They didn't like the idea that something was just a music experience—they wanted the listener to do things with it, play with it on a screen and stuff. They didn't understand what the user interaction was." It's a clash that typifies the idea of music as software to serve ADD-riddled consumers rather than a valid thing in its own right. "We were like, you interact with it by listening to it," Gold says with a sigh.
He emphasizes that Bronze, developed in collaboration with producer Lexxx (Björk, Wild Beasts), arose from "a purely musical place"—but also affects the listening experience. Like the Prism, Bronze sharpens one's concentration: Trying to pick out the subtle changes to a song requires closer listening. Gold speaks about the "cerebral overload" and "oversaturation" that music-consumption tools facilitate with weariness. While acknowledging that "it's not really your position as a musician to dictate to people how they listen," he argues that "if you can create an environment where they feel naturally compelled to give it attention, then that's key—to make the listening experience more engaging."
The response to Bronze from fans and Gold's fellow musicians has been encouraging. But the effect Bronze has had on his own songwriting has been revelatory. "When recording music first started, it was about the ability to capture a performance and repeat it. But I'd say modern music, even static music, in most cases is less about capturing a performance and more about capturing a set of decisions—and what Bronze does is add another dimension to those decisions," he explains. "It can be overwhelming—once you've blown those doors open to all possibilities, you have to learn to limit yourself to what you want this piece to actually do. It makes you approach the identity of the piece differently—if you're doing things that stop the piece having an identity, then you're not using Bronze how you should."
Right now, the Prism and Bronze are in their early stages and heavily simplified. Jaar's next Prism project will be a matte, dark cube, while Bronze changes songs on Gold's album in far more radical ways than the relatively subtle alterations of "Flesh Freeze." They are both struck by each other's ideas as well, with Gold mulling over the idea of a physical Bronze object and an excited Jaar asserting that "the idea of a closed-system cube that has eternal permutations is totally the idea."
These possibilities—and many, many more—lend credence to the idea that Jaar and Gold are sowing the seeds of future shifts in listening habits. It's notable, too, that emerging artists, with a great deal more at stake, are taking the reins. "Well, it has to be," shrugs Jaar. "We have that hunger."