Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Modes of Music, pt 1
~ NB Please click on the image above for a close-up of the Difference Engine ~
Last week, in the wake of my contentious post on 'dance music', I've been continuing to think about how we understand electronic musics of different kinds.
One of the things that fell by the wayside in the comments section of that post was that, at heart, what I was trying to do was to de-naturalise a given, to suggest that the dominant mode by which electronic music is currently understood (as dance music) is a historical phenomenon – not timeless, natural, proper, or inevitable.
With this in mind, I contacted some people I know (RS, AF, AC, TH - anonymity retained on the request of some, imposed on all for uniformity): these are people who are all avid music lovers, music makers, peddlers of opinions and interpretations, and passionate listeners to electronic music.... but they're also people who, I think, have never been primarily interested in electronic music's dance music modes (with exceptions).
So, to clarify some of my arguments, to bring in some of theirs, and to think a little more (and a little differently) about what so many of you appeared to be soooo keen to talk about, I sent them questionnaires.
The responses were fascinating... and long. So for digestability's sake, I've split 'em up into four parts. This, the part one, asks basic/fundamental questions about electronic music (dance music is pt II). Okay, here goes:
~ NB: I would appreciate it if you would read slowly and carefully, and try to get the sympathetic 'gist' of what people are saying... I don't want to be drawn in to a flame war with someone who has read a sentence, become angry, and gone straight for the comments section... simpatico, simpatico ~
1) What do you think about when I say 'electronic music'? What is electronic music about? What does it explore... using what tools and methods? What would you say are its histories, its innovations, its developments?
I see electronic music simply as "music produced electronically" - ie - using instruments other than acoustic or analogue (including electrified acoustic) instruments - computers, drum machines, samplers, sequencers, midi etc.
I think because of the inherent restrictions in early electronic music technology electronic music grew initially with a high level of repetition (of both rhythms and sounds) which I think led to a new way of looking at music - suddenly it was extremely *easy* to produce an identical loop (something very difficult with acoustic instruments) and this influenced general music composition.
Jeez, you sneak in a lot of questions under 1)! Electronic music, at its best, is concerned with creating sound. That is, it is a means to manipulating the compression of air (through speakers or headphones) to affect a particular reaction with the listener, as opposed to reproducing a live musical event. Recordings of classical music, the most extreme opposite, steadfastly refuse to 'pollute' a live recording with input from the studio. The studio is transparent. If only some inspired bastard would do a studio version of Rimsky-Korsakov!
Of course, ever since music was recorded and played back, there has been a tension between purely reproducing, with the greatest fidelity possible, a live musical event, and producing an aesthetically pleasing sound. Electronic music is concerned with the latter. (Which is why I think 'live' electronic sets are disingenuous - the live event is a reproduction of the recording, which inverses the chicken-and-egg order of performance and recording).
Electronic music is music made by electronic (transistor powered) as opposed to electric (tube stuff like guitars, basses and early keyboards that needed tube amps) music generators.
Electronic music is about many things for many people. Having fun, annoying neighbours/family, being seriously into technology, programming, exploring space, taking drugs, being cool, innovation, mimicking the contemporary urban sound environment and probably heaps of other stuff too.
Electronic music is interesting in its history in that it seems to have roots in more places (geographical), styles and genres than a lot of other genres. Its comparatively easy to say where rock, funk, classical, pop or lots of other genres come from. Electronic music seems to have become a tag attached to a sound in the 80s but there were heaps of people from different geographical places and musical backgrounds (Cage, Kraftwerk, 'Scratch' Perry, dare I say Joy Division?) who perhaps didn't identify as electronic music who were considered the forefathers of the genre by self described electronic musicians of later generations.
Literally, and without being disingenuous, music that's electronic. Tools and methods: I suppose synths and computers spring to mind, particularly these days where pretty much anyone can set themselves up with a little home studio. What's it about? I think you can say in general those making electronic music are more interested in sound than somebody picking up a guitar; for all that the two strands have converged, I'd say rock music is still more lyrically-based than electronic music; it's more about getting the words across, whereas electronic music is less concerned with this and more concerned with the possibilities of sound.
Its innovations are manifold; synth pop in the '80s and the rise of commercial dance music in the late '80s/early '90s expanded pop music beyond the guitar/bass/drums format - and over the last 10 years, a lot of those innovations have now been reabsorbed into guitar music. And there's also the proto-electronica of the '60s and '70s, which was astonishingly innovative and ahead of its time.
2) What are the contexts and sites proper to the production and reception of electronic music? Where does electronic music happen? Where do people listen to it?
Anywhere else other music happens - ie - everywhere that there are people. And electricity. I don't think it's appropriate to speak of "proper" sites when it comes to any musical form, but that's just me.
The means of production, for me, are unimportant. It's a means to an end, which is the entire point. In some senses, I would consider Radiohead's (awesome, awesome) In Rainbows, as electronic music because, as you said in reference to Sly and the Family Stone, the studio is the instrument.
I listen to electronic music with headphones on my own, and find any other way kinda weird. While genres of music are inherently social (eg folk, hip hop, telling stories, messages with the music there to engage) electronic music needs the quiet to appreciate the intellectual appeal of its inherent abstraction. A night club is possibly the worst venue because the music is relegated to be on par with the wallpaper. If its loud enough, you can't socialise anyway, so why pretend? If want to socialise, then to a pub w/ a jukebox. Harsh, I know, but I think electronic music blindly follows the tradition of live music (which is exactly what it is not) uncritically. The 12k thing in Japan you told me about sounds intriguing. If any public broadcast of electronic music is appropriate, it would be some kind of installation, rather than a club.
Okay, the one or two times I've done the drugs and clubbing thing it was fun, but you could put the Chemical Brothers on and I would have enjoyed it. Nup, electronic music is for downtime, maybe the washing up, headphones, and you listen to it.
The word 'proper' should not be used in conjuction with any kind of music let alone something as young electronic music. Proper suggests a right and wrong dichotomy. Personal Computers are probably simultaneously the most common sites for both the production and reception of electronic music. Electronic music happens in bedrooms, studios, clubs and raves.
I think the picture here is more diverse than it used to be. Whereas once the majority of electronic music listeners would have listened to it in a club, that's not necessarily the case any more. Club culture is clearly still an important part of electronic music, but it's not the only part - Portishead's Dummy and Air's Moon Safari
soundtracked every mid-'90s yuppie dinner party.
3) What are your favourite works of electronic music? What is it about them that you love?
Bjork - "hyperballad" (actually my first strong memory of a piece of electronic that had any effect on me at all)
- The Ricardo Villalobos stuff you've given me recently
- Likewise the Donnacha Costello pieces, especially "Together is the New Alone"
- M83 - "dead seas..." album
- I'd actually like to put Kate Bush "running up that hill" in this list as another example. And while I'm at it, the original "Doctor Who" theme music.
The common element seems to be a focus on slow melodic development, repetition, and an almost incidental use of "electronics" - all the pieces I like would be inherently valuable pieces of composition if they were played on regular "analogue" instruments.
Vlad Delay/Uusitalo, Mouse on Mars, Villalobos, Frank Bretschneider, Andreas Tilliander, Gas, Rhythm & Sound - nothing within the last five years, I fear. All because of the complexity of their compositions, the quality and uniqueness of their production and the enigmatic imagination of their vision.
I should add that imagination and abstraction is, for me, the major appeal of electronic music. Where you're not limited to the restrictions of an instrument and anything that can be expressed in a soundwave is possible, it's a true blank canvass.
Model 500, Night Drive
Carl Craig, More songs about...
Frankie Knuckles, Traxx Classics
KLF, Chill Out
Great electronic music utilises sounds that are 'new' or unfamiliar to the listener. The chief excitement in listening to electronic music is marvelling at all the indescribable sounds that you hear coming from the record. All of the above introduced me to sounds that I was previously unfamiliar with. Model 500 and Frankie Knuckles were also very funky.
Massive Attack's Blue Lines (the track in particular, as well as the album): Minimalism. Subtlety. The sense of space in the music.
Casiotone For The PAinfully Alone's Twinkle Echo: The DIY idea of using shitty cheap keyboards, the lyrics, the fact that this is electronic music and almost kinda folk music at the same time
The Doctor Who theme: for creating this crazy other-worldly sound with
tape loops and simple analogue synths
Chromatics' In The City: more minimalism and space, and a glacial synth sound