Electronic Music and the Aesthetic of Melancholy.
When I listen to the music of Lorn, I am met overwhelmingly with a feeling of pensive sadness, a feeling of melancholy. As a musician and composer, I am curious as to how this feeling permeates so much of Lorn’s work, and so this article will seek to explain how he manages to create that aesthetic within his music.
Marcos Ortega is an American electronic musician seemingly dedicated to crafting the feeling of melancholy. Even his stage name, Lorn, conjures shades of abandonment, loneliness, of being forlorn.
Melancholy is a unique emotion. It’s tempting to lump it in with sadness and depression, but there are key differences that set it apart from other feelings. Whereas depression is a painful and demotivating state, melancholy has a kind of pleasure at its core; the pleasure of reflection. (Brady, 2003) The hope for things that we want and the love of things we used to have underpins the sorrowful feelings of melancholy.
Melancholy has contrasting shades of emotion within it. On one hand, there are the feelings of loneliness, isolation, emptiness, the fear of longing, and sadness from loss. On the other, there are memories of happier times, fantasies of better futures, and the mindfulness that accompanies reflection.
These contrasting feelings, coupled with the space to be reflective, gives way to melancholy.
“A most incomparable delight it is so to melancholize, and build castles in the air, to go smiling to themselves, acting an infinite variety of parts, which they suppose and strongly imagine they represent, or that they see acted or done.” — Love of Solitude by Robert Burton.
Ortega makes ample use of space and contrast throughout his music. His choice of sounds is characterised by heavy and gritty bass tones underneath airy and delicate pads, as heard in the track Conduit. The punchy and aggressive percussion in Anvil relentlessly drives the track forward, but with creative use of rhythmic breaks, Ortega makes it feel like the piece is constantly stopping to look backwards. Entangled is rich with movement and texture for the first half of the track, but quickly fizzles into an ambient pensiveness at the halfway point.
Ortega even expresses this feeling in the timbral design of the instruments.
As a visual expression of the aesthetic of melancholy, there are few representations more apt than the site of crumbling ruins. Lonely, decaying structures remind us of what has been lost and make us dwell on what could have been. (Brady, 2003) Acid Rain builds up to a promising climax, enticing the listener to anticipate a huge wave of sound in the chorus. But when the deep, enveloping kick drum finally lands, all of the other instruments crumble beneath it, leaving us dwelling on what could have been.
The music of Lorn also expresses this contrast harmonically. In western music, we’ve generally been culturally conditioned to experience the sound of major harmony as ‘happy’, and minor harmony as ‘sad’. (Loveday, 2022)
While this is broadly true, a skilful composer will use the contrast between these two feelings to create a push and pull within a piece of music.
One might expect Ortega to heavily favour minor chords in his music, but he’s not afraid to make ample use of major tonality. In Negative Jumpsuit, the track rests on the major IV chord just as often as it does on the minor vi chord. These chords aren’t harmonically equal however, as even though the IV chord is major, it has a tendency to always want to resolve to the stronger, more stable minor vi chord. Even though the harmony in Negative Jumpsuit is equally split between major and minor, the harmonic gravity is always pushing towards the darker minor feeling. Even though melancholy is rich with fantasy and thoughts of happier times, it is ultimately characterised by sadness and isolation.
Melancholy is a unique and often overlooked piece of the emotional pie, and yet it can be a powerful force in art and music, as demonstrated by Lorn’s richly melancholic catalogue of music. He creates this feeling by making use of rhythmic, dynamic, and textural space to encourage reflection, and by taking every opportunity to weave stark contrast into every aspect of the music so as to mirror the warring feelings present in melancholy.
Brady, E. (2003). Melancholy as an Aesthetic Emotion. Hdl.handle.net. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.7523862.0001.006.
Loveday, C. (2022). Why are minor chords sad and major chords happy? | BBC Science Focus Magazine. Sciencefocus.com. https://www.sciencefocus.com/science/why-are-minor-chords-sad-and-major-chords-happy/.
Vessel, E., Starr, G., & Rubin, N. (2013). Art reaches within: aesthetic experience, the self and the default mode network. Frontiers In Neuroscience, 7. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2013.00258