Max Alper is best known for La Meme Young, his popular Instagram account turning niche experimental music jokes into dank memes. But a deep interest in music pedagogy is at the heart of everything Alper does, including his non-profit Sonic Arts For All!, an organization that puts music technology directly into the hands of K-12 and special needs students. We talk about the importance of creativity, memes as pedagogy, the limits of traditional music education, and how to democratize music technology.
Episode 19: UNFOLLOW ME
Interview recorded between Montreal and San Juan, January 2021
Produced and mixed in Montreal, May 2021
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SP* at Anchor
@La_Meme_Young began in 2017, back when Inzane_Johnny was still wolf_eyes_psychojazz, and the niche music meme community was a lot smaller. The page began mostly as a repository for memes Alper made while teaching during grad school in Brooklyn, the kind of things that might go on the first slide of a presentation. He wasn’t expecting, or even seeking, a huge audience. In fact, for the first two years or so his bio read only, “unfollow me.” But as his audience grew, La Meme Young transformed into a vibrant community dedicated to education and support, including many musicians and artists. (Maria Chavez and Greg Fox were among these early boosters; listen to their interviews with Alper by subscribing to his Patreon for as little as $1/month). After a successful run of “ask me anythings” in his Insta stories (and at the urging of his zoomer followers), LMY set up a Dischord where Alper runs weekly group crits and monthly projects.
I was immediately impressed by Alper’s ability to produce such funny memes about niche subjects without sacrificing complexity. “IMPROVISATION + TAPE RECORDER = COMPOSITION” ; “THIS IS A MUSICAL INSTRUMENT” ; “DEMOCRATIZE MUSIC TECHNOLOGY YOU FUCK”. All really pithy encapsulation of ideas I’ve explored at great length with Sound Propositions. Sometimes less really is more. That said, Alper’s memes are designed to start a conversation, not end one. As he emphasizes in this episode, he would never teach with just a meme. The meme is always an invitation to participate, to be curious, to learn. Perhaps that explains the account’s massive success. LMY’s not just in it for the lulz—this is meme pedagogy.
Alper is professor of audio production and sound studies at Atlantic University College in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, and founder of Sonic Arts for All! (SAFA!), a non-profit he began partly in response to the reactionary closing of a public program he worked at in Brooklyn. He is, of course, also a musician in his own right, releasing work under the monikers Mishpokhe Klang and Peretsky.
It shows that Alper is a music educator in his day job. When not killing his idols and poking fun at self-serious artists and academics, a recurring theme of his memes tends to emphasize the importance of the creative process, encouraging musicians to focus more on the why and less on the techno fetishism that’s cultivated by most corners of the music industries (and I say industries in the plural because, really, there’s not just one). Alper rejects the hierarchical privileging of musical notation and virtuosity in the name of access. Partly, this is a result of his own experience in more traditional conservatory programs that, in their commitment to preservation of music as a museum art, have been unable to takes music technology seriously. But the focus should always be on creativity and access. Many LMY memes point out that you can do whatever you want with free software like Pure Data, Audacity, VCRack, etc. We don’t “need” expensive modular synths or vintage gear. Consumer driven markets are great, but we can’t let critical discussion be driven by marketing and sales.
Memes always already presuppose a kind of community, whether we mean Dawkin’s original concept—a viral idea; the meme as “a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation”—or the text-and-image (and sometimes sound) format that dominates internet culture. Memes are about imitation and transmission, they are by necessity iterative, as much about their evolution as any one particular instantiation. And while they may sometimes convey serious messages, memes never seem to be without a sense of humor. They’re meant to be funny. In thinking about how the meme ecologies intersect with politics, Jack Bratich looks to Paolo Virno, who conceives of jokes as the “diagram of innovative action.” Jokes also function according to a logic of imitation and transmission, of repetition and variation, a kind of model that can also be applied to social or political action. Memes can be vehicles for the spread of complex ideas, but they can also encourage the diffusion of behaviors. The popularity of Tik Tok during the pandemic has meant that sound increasingly plays a larger role in meme culture, and there’s no where better to look for meme behavior than Tik Tok.
LMY Patrons has seen a new stage of Alper’s music pedagogy, centering the importance of collaboration to community building. In our conversation, Alper stresses the need to move beyond a competitive mindset, in which we view each other as threats. Instead, we should focus our energies on cultivating spaces for skill share, constructive criticism, and mutual aid. When Alper founded SAFA!, his music tech non-profit in Brooklyn and now in Puerto Rico, it was because we didn’t see the kind of music pedagogy that contemporary music seems to demand. Empowerment is the recurrent theme.
Alper likewise argues that artists should have a social practice, that teaching and workshops as at least as important as selling records. Pauline Oliveros and Maria Chavez are strong role models and inspirations in this regard. Alper points to Oliveros’ text scores, which can be performed by amateurs or virtuosi alike. Perhaps a related category of memes is explicitly affirmative: anything can be a musical instrument. Constraints are generative, free tools are fine, just use what you’ve got.
LMY Patrons have amassed an impressive archive of interviews with a diverse group of musicians, including noise artist Dreamcrusher, experimental hip hop group Clipping, free improvising bassist Brandon Lopez, and, most recently, composer Angélica Negrón. LMY Patrons also includes monthly projects, weekly group critiques, call-in office hours, and a Dischord that captures some of that community energy that used to be found on old internet message boards. Alper will be starting a PhD program this fall, and is currently doing a membership drive to help finance that, so please check out his Patreon.
ARTIST – “TITLE” (ALBUM, LABEL, YEAR)
Peretsky – “Pase que lo que” (Bandcamp, 2019)
George Clinton (RBMA, 2015)
Parliament – “Supergroovalisticprosifunkstication” (Mothership Connection, Casablanca, 1975)
Peretsky – “Cuarentena Canovanas (edit)” (Cuarentena Canovanas, Bandcamp, 2020)
Konono N°1 – “Lufuala Ndonga” (Congotronics, Crammed Discs, 2004)
Eddie Palmieri – “Bilongo” (El Lunatico / Bilongo, Tico, 1968)
DJ Riobamba – Latin LDN #2 (Boiler Room, 2019)
Valentine – “Odysseus Matrix” (SAFA!, 2020)
Les Filles de Illighadad – “Eghass Malan” (Eghass Malan, Sahel Sounds, 2017)
Francis Bebey – “Sahel” (African Electronic Music 1975-1982, Born Bad, 2011)
George Lewis & Douglas Ewart – “Homage to Charles Parker” (Live at Palasport, Novara, Italy, November 11, 1978)
Extra Life –“Strong Brother, Weak Brother (Laurel Halo remix)” (Ripped Hearts, Last Things, 2010)
Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir – “Lux Aurumque” (2010)
Angélica Negrón – “Soundscape Backing Track” (by Audiopuerto / Ariel Alvarado & Manuel Vázquez) (Marejada, 2020)
Angélica Negrón – “Excerpt” (Gray Sound Sessions, July 21, 2020)
Mike Huckaby – ” Wavetable No 9” (My Life With The Wave EP, S Y N T H 2007)
Maria Chavez – “Sara Sleeps” (Bandcamp, 2020)
Mauthausen Orchestra – Side A excerpt (They Never Learn, Aquilifer Sodality, 1985)
Luigi Russolo / DJ Spooky – Corale_FTP _ Bundle_Conduit (Sound Unbound, 2007)
Luigi Russolo – “Veglio di una Citta” [1914) (Dada for Now: a collection of Futurist and Dada Sound Works, 1985)
Twodeadsluts Onegoodfuck “live excerpt” (Live @ Basement 414, Lansing, MI, 17 October 2007)
John Cage + Sun Ra – “Empty Words And Keyboard” (John Cage Meets Sun Ra: The Complete Concert June 8, 1986 Coney Island, Modern Harmonic, 2016)
Pauline Oliveros /Stuart Dempster / Panaiotis “Suiren” (Deep Listening, New Albion, 1989)
Jeremiah Cymerman / Charlie Looker – “I’ll show you what you are” (A Horizon Made Of Canvas, Astral Spirit, 2021)
Greg Fox – “Stone Pillar” (Stone Pillar, Longform Editions, 2019)
Clipping – “Dominoes” (CLPPNG, Sub Pop, 2014)
Manitoba [Caribou] – “Children Play Well Together” (Stop Breaking My Heart, Leaf, 2001)
David Grubbs – “The Chimney Swifts” (Airport Symphony, Room40, 2007)
Wolf Eyes – “Ancient Delay” (Burned Minds, Sub Pop, 2004)
The Mad Lads – “Gone, Promises of Yesterday” (A New Beginning, Volt, 1972)
Sound Propositions is written, recorded, mixed, and produced by Joseph Sannicandro.
SELECTED MEME GALLERY