What Is Glitch Music?

Kevin Ott
Dan Snaith with Caribou
Dan Snaith with Caribou

One person's sonic garbage is another person's sonic treasure. That is the most concise definition of glitch music, a subgenre of electronic music, whereby an artist takes hums, pops, scratches, squeaks and any unwanted glitches or operating failures of digital equipment -- anything that creates an unusual sound usually associated with technical malfunction -- and organizes them into electronic compositions.

The Father of Glitch Music

Luigi Russolo, the author of the Futurist manifesto The Art of Noise, is considered the first composer to take discarded or generally unwanted noises and organize them into meaningful compositions. Because his work occurred in the early 20th century, his noise music was mechanical and analog rather than digital. Besides being an Italian Futurist who embraced speed, technology, and (at times) violent transformation, he was also obsessed with the occult, which fueled many of his esoteric and unusual noise creations.

The Digital Revolution of the Nineties

The one distinction that stops artists from labeling Russolo a glitch composer is the lack of digital noise in his time period. Glitch music, therefore, is specific to sounds created in computer-based, digital environments, and it is also described as being subtler than other noise genres. This is why the genre did not officially exist until the late 90s when computer recording software became more commercially available. Some of the best examples of glitch music from this period include the following artists:

  • Kim Cascone: Digital music pioneer, glitch music scholar, and Hollywood sound editor, Kim Cascone is something of a legend in the electronic music world. To hear a lengthy example of his music, you can purchase his twenty-minute song Dust Theories 1 for 99 cents.
  • Oval: In the 1990s, German musicians Markus Popp, Sebiastian Oschatz, and Frank Metzger formed Oval, which became an influential group on the glitch music scene. Popp eventually went solo though he retained the band's name. They have made their song Heroic (feat. Dandara) available to preview and purchase in various formats.
  • Matmos: Martin Schmidt and Dr. Drew Daniel formed Matmos in San Francisco and became experimenters of glitch and electronic music beginning in the mid-90s. They are especially known for their collaborations with Icelandic singer Björk. Download their song The Struggle Against Unreality for free.
  • Autechre: Rob Brown and Sean Booth from Rochdale, England formed Autechre in 1987 and signed to the famous electronic artist label Warp Records, releasing innovative music that used glitch-like techniques such as hyperprogamming. Stream or buy the original mix of their song Dropp to get a taste for Autechre's brilliant sound.
  • Ryoji Ikeda: Ikeda is Japan's top electronic composer. He began in the 1990s and currently works out of Paris. Stream the video or purchase the song Data.Simplex to sample one of Japan's finest.
  • Fennesz: Christian Fennesz, an electronic composer , uses a guitar processed through his computer to create his songs. You can download his remix Rain Code for free.
  • Pan Sonic: MTV calls Pan Sonic's version of glitch music a mix of "antiseptic production techniques and power-tool electronics." The group is from Finland. To hear a sample, preview or purchase their 1995 song Vakio.

Emerging Artists of the New Millennium

As the new millennium has made powerful computers and advanced digital processing capabilities more affordable for glitch artists, the complexity and richness of the genre has multiplied and even bred new hybrids such as glitch hop. Some significant glitch artists of the 21st century include:

  • Kid606: A native of Venezuela who moved to San Diego at a young age, Kid606 is one of the first noise artists to fuse glitch with heavy metal, among many other unique fusions. You can preview and download his song Left Hand Pathfinder for free.
  • Caribou: Canadian Dan Snaith got his start in 2001 when, under the artist name Manitoba, he recorded his eclectic blend of psychedelic rock and experimental electronica-glitch music. He later had to change his name to Caribou because of trademark infringement. Watch a streaming video and purchase Skunks for a sample of his unique sound.
  • Kit Clayton: A San Francisco-based artist, Kit Clayton is an accomplished abstract electronic artist who uses a variety of computer-based glitch techniques combined with acoustic recording methods. Preview and purchase his song W-Shape to get a feel for his sound.
  • Thom Yorke: The iconic lead singer of the legendary rock band Radiohead, Thom Yorke is known for his glitch-influenced compositions in both his solo efforts and with Radiohead. Listen to his song Twist, which is categorized as glitch, to hear an example of Yorke at work.

The Future of Glitch

As digital technology rapidly improves and becomes more affordable with each passing year, the possibilities for glitch music grow with dizzying speed. As more artists embrace this eclectic subgenre, fans might begin seeing it in everything from pop music to mainstream hip hop to blockbuster movies.

What Is Glitch Music?