Emptyset at Broke LA, April 23, 2016. Photo by Daiana Feuer
West Torrance High School

Musical collective ’emptyset’ finds community and collaboration transcending geography

In YAWN’s Long Beach apartment, nine of the twelve members of electronic music collective emptyset! are scattered around the living room and kitchen, rapidly pressing buttons on handheld game controllers connected to a box TV set. Others are rapping and dancing with the same conspiratorial grins you’d shoot at friends over inside jokes. And a few are deep in conversation, discussing future artistic projects and old high school acquaintances alike, in just barely raised voices to be heard over the eclectic mix of music playing in the background.

They are part of a new wave of electronic music producers emerging from Southern California taking advantage of digital tools. Member Jordan Miller likes to call them the “New Renaissance.” These musicians are part of a broader tradition of electronic music emerging in the home. Calvin Harris, The Chainsmokers, Flume, among many other record-topping electronic artists, got their starts producing at home.

“This promise of an easy road to success can seem enticing,” explains Sean Nye, a lecturer specializing in Electronic Music at the USC Thorton School of Music.  He references the SNL skit ‘When Will the Bass Drop?’ as an example of how the no-frills, minimal equipment and perceived skill involved in obtaining EDM stardom has become an object of satire.

“In aesthetic terms, one can turn this critique that the music ‘isn’t real’ on its head. One can respond: yes, that is exactly why we like electronic music. We love artificial and strange sounds – we aren’t interested in traditional forms of expression or ‘musicality,’” says Nye.

“So many young people are able to put out their art and vision because of technology,” said Jordan Miller, explaining how he came up with the term. He explained how they incorporate multiple genres of music and use technology to reach a larger audience. “Pay attention to what these kids have to say. There are artists out there that have very different perspectives to express.”

With the advent of more accessible recording equipment, more people can create and incorporate different elements into what was previously electronic music. Electronic is not so much its own genre as it is merely a manner of creating music.

Jordan Miller says that when his father was a musician, the process was more difficult because musicians needed a record deal in order to extend their audiences beyond their locality. “Now all you need is a laptop with internet, some speakers, and a microphone and you’re set. People from Japan can be bumping your story, your art, your vision.”

Nye recalls a producer colleague who worked with someone he had never met in person. “They simply collaborated online, sending sound files back and forth, and had occasional meetings via Skype or phone.”

In the end, however, musicians also often emerge from communal settings.“Music comes out of scenes,”  explains Michael Bierylo, who is the chair of Electronic Production and Design at Berklee College of Music in Boston. “Musicians and audiences naturally gravitate towards those scenes.” “Musical production is also intertwined with the spaces where it is performed; it can be important to experience how musical productions function in club and concert spaces of various sorts,” says Nye.

The earliest members made music separately in middle school, and continued together throughout their time at Long Beach Polytechnic High School.  “The music brought us together,” says EZRA. “Pierre (.44 Manson) came over and was like, ‘Hey check out my dubstep track!'” recalled Royce Charms. Sitting around the kitchen table, the musicians of emptyset!, now aged 17-21, laughed at their embarrassed friend, .44 Manson, hiding his face behind his hands.

The dozen declared themselves emptyset! in July 2015. “It’s a definitely an oxymoron,” says Marlon Okane of the facetiously chosen lowercase-stylized name. Unlike its eponymous mathematical counterpart, emptyset! is full of individuals who support one another by collaborating and attending each other’s shows. Earlier this spring, 11 of the 12 members performed together at Broke LA, a Coachella spin-off previously named Brokechella.

As they became more involved with music, their friendships took on another dimension. In after-school jam sessions, they fine tuned their technical skills and artistic style. “I used to ask these guys for all of my producing tips when I was starting off,” says Cavalier, who now has just over 79,000 followers on Soundcloud, and performs across the country. The friendship fosters a sense of camaraderie more than it does competition, and each member specializes in different areas.

James Cross feels challenged by his peers, but in a “strictly non-competitive sense.” He used to doubt his abilities in music-theory, but says that working with EZRA “challenged [him] and brought out abilities and capabilities [he] didn’t know he had.”

Bludwork enjoys seeing different approaches to creating sound. He works with hardware while some of the other members work on software such as FL Studio. “It’s fun to see what my guys do when I take them out of the DAW (digital audio workstation) and put them on something a bit more hands on.”

These musicians’ styles are influenced by the melting pot of musical influences in Los Angeles. The group’s self-described identity, in a phrase, is something akin to “really good quality notebook scribbles,” music-theory-informed auditory vignettes — comprised of R&B, pop, hip-hop, and more — intended to recreate emotion and memory through music.

“We have 12 different sounds, not 12 different musicians trying to find a sound,” says YAWN. Cassius appreciates, especially being so young, that each member has an established sound. “It makes you, as an artist, grounded.” He has respect for his peers because they synthesize various influences to create something new. “You’re thinking about different types of rhythms, sounds, and effects that you believe would complement each other in order to create your sound.”

Apollo Stripes makes genre-bending music driven by emotion, which he says is a more accurate description of the music he makes. “My ideal music is music that as you listen to, you can almost see a visual picture in your head.” Similarly, EZRA views his music as that kind that “operates outside of the traditional concepts and boundaries of genre.”

Now that all members are out of high school (the youngest, Cassius, graduated this June), and are dispersed in locations as far as Atlanta, Georgia —  they maintain ties despite the geographic distance and conflicting schedules. “We all stay in touch over social media and the internet because even though we might be far away, we’re friends,” said Apollo Stripes.  

Photo courtesy of Daiana Feuer.

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