Friday, 13 January 2017

Electronic Music Maker Mottos

Recently I asked the members of Electronic Music Philosophy a question. The question was the following one: You are asked to write a motto for every electronic music maker to remember at all times. What motto do you give them? 

The question was, of course, a trick one. It was a trick question because, conceivably, every answer given could be right and every answer given could be questioned. There was no possible answer on which everyone would agree or to which everyone would have had to assent. It was, then, merely an excuse for a discussion. Or a blog. But then the question was set in the context of a Facebook group set up to encourage thought and discussion about electronic music. So its purpose was served. And I was very happy to find that I got quite a selection of answers. Some of these were jokey and not serious. These people are not yet aware that I never joke when I'm talking about electronic music but good humour dictates that I let their answers stand. Perhaps if they are reading this now they have become aware. It may be that as I now discuss some of the answers that were given I make a fool of myself by taking as serious something that wasn't. However, for the purposes of this blog I need to and so I will have to hope that the discussion overall is judged worthwhile at the end. Of course, before starting to argue against all the people in the group I'd like to thank them for taking the trouble at all. And now I'm going to tell you why your mottos were all wrong.

There were some mottos that suggested that what was required was industry or effort. Examples of this would be "just keep patchin ooooon," "Always do more than the machines" and "Get back to work". But I question whether electronic music is about work or effort. Of course, many will say that it is. They will point out that its only when you work that the synapses can start to fire and ideas take shape. By working you start to put your habits to work and enable what you are thinking to take effect. But yet it remains the case that you can just have an idea and bring it to life relatively simply. I myself use a kind of inspirational idea of music in practice. It remains a mystery to me why what I do that I like for an extended period thereafter is "good" and why other things I've done are "bad". But I know it has nothing to do with effort for often I have barely made any but the results are fine. Other times (a few!) I've made lots and it isn't. I cannot distinguish between my good pieces and bad ones on the basis of some kind of effort to results ratio. I doubt anyone can.

Perhaps the polar opposite of the "hard work" mentality in the answers given was the one which praised thinking. Examples here are "Get quiet and think," Do not forget to listen," "Start by silence" and "study music". Of course, you might expect that I have more sympathy with such answers but not simply so. Now I am never going to write in this blog that you shouldn't think in general terms but I am going to ask what you should be thinking about. If this thinking is a mere stroking of your musical egos then I am more firmly against it. Thinking is your opportunity to not do what you always do or what you want to do or what you might like as a result. Thinking is your chance to design an idea or a technique or a strategy for something you haven't done before and don't necessarily know the outcome to. So I'm more against the kind of thinking which studies conventions or enshrines ways of working that either the musical body as a whole or you yourself have canonized and more in favour of using thinking to think of new ways for you to do things. If you are going to think, don't waste it.

One idea which cropped up in the answers I was definitely against. This was the idea that you should do something you will like. No person who reads and is stimulated by reading John Cage can go along with this. Examples here are "Make the music you want to hear" and "Make music you love and others will love it too". The second idea there I simply don't believe not least because very many people make very private music. This is not least in that the internal sense of the music they make is very attuned to a particular person, the one who made it. It may not have been made to be widely liked for, in that, it loses the sense of being the music of a single soul that created it. Music is not simply communication nor is it simply made to amuse or entertain others. And, to be honest, I'm not sure if it should even be made "to be loved" at all in the first place. I also absolutely don't think we should be making what we want to hear. In fact, I think the opposite. I think that is a lot of the problem with why many hit a roadblock when making music. They want to make something they would like. On the contrary, I say that you should surprise yourself. You should make something you might not like and then challenge yourself to change so that you can come to like it. Music making is not ego stroking. It is consciousness expanding.

Some responses I got I especially liked. These are because they were both thoughtful and enigmatic in themselves. They challenged me and made me think about them. This is exactly the kind of answer I was hoping for. So "the more you think about music, the less you feel it" intrigued me because it suggested that something not necessarily cognitive, feeling, perhaps intuition, was important. And I couldn't agree more here. Thinking is one thing and has its uses, as mentioned above, but there are other human things which are no less important. Feeling or mood or intuition are some of these things. And this is nothing to do with knowledge or logic. It is allowing yourself to be guided, giving up micro-control. In a world when so much of music and so many music discussions are dominated by ideas of professionalism or what is the "right" way to do things I want to be that guy who constantly says there is no right way. Following a feeling or just doing something at random are equally as valid. There is no optimum place to put your speakers. There is no ideal way to use compression. There are just people who do things and sonic results. Stop getting bogged down in the idea music is about knowledge and just feel. Then have the confidence to go where your feelings take you. You cannot go wrong because there is no wrong.

Some of this attitude was mirrored in a number of answers, I'm happy to say. A number of people talked about breaking rules which is both good and bad in my view. Its good that they want to break them and advise others to do the same but its bad that they ever thought there were any rules to begin with. Of course, most people when getting into some interest start off very straight and play according to what the rules of their particular game appear to be. I remember the first music I made. It was a carbon copy of things I liked informed by reading articles in Sound on Sound magazine about what the right way to do things was (or the right way in 1985 when I started buying it). But the resulting music was a very bad, unfeeling, join the dots, kind of copy of the things I liked, things I had merely tried to imitate. In layman's terms, it was utter crap. I thought about this for years and had a couple of periods of doing nothing at all, trying to figure out why it was so dull and stilted. And then it hit me that I was trying to conform to someone else's ideas. Or even a whole industry's. I stopped buying Sound on Sound or, indeed, paying attention to what others thought was right. I started trying to do what I felt and disregarded any rules. Indeed, I tried to forget anyone else had any. That's when I started to get somewhere. So yes, Ian Haygreen, your answer "Everything's permissible. Including the kitchen sink" is absolutely correct! 

I didn't answer my own question when I made it. I wanted to see what everyone else said and then use a blog to set mine out. So I didn't answer because to do so would have stolen my thunder here. The answer I would give, which is equally as wrong and as challengeable as everyone else's, is "Be interesting and explore something". I say this because, first, it is meant to be a motto which is a kind of guiding thought or direction in which to head and I think we all need those. Without them we are simply inert. But I also think that because I think music should be about something. This can be an idea, an experiment, a feeling, a mood, or anything that can be explored musically, that is, in sound. So my motto is giving impetus and direction. But its also giving a purpose and a standard, its saying that you should aim for something, try to do what you are capable of and not stay in a comfort zone. "Be interesting and explore something" is about taking a risk and perhaps even getting into trouble. 

Because electronic music shouldn't be safe, right?



Friday, 6 January 2017

Electronic Music Genius?

There was controversy and debate, some of it a little feisty, in my Facebook group, Electronic Music Philosophy, last night when one member, Gavin McCabe, brought up the notion of "genius" in electronic music and, specifically, the question of if there are any geniuses in the world of electronic music to date. Electronic music in general is a music given birth to in the 20th Century and was naturally dependent on the discovery and human exploitation of electricity and its deployment domestically in human towns and cities. But once that was done artistically-minded people interested in sound began to utilize it. However, it was not until the developments of the 1960s, by which time many leading industrial countries had one or more "radiophonic" studios equipped to explore and exploit electronic sound possibilities, that the first commercially commissioned purely electronic recordings made for entertainment and enjoyment by record companies started to be made. Sometimes thought to be the first here is Silver Apples of The Moon by Morton Subotnick. This recording was commissioned in 1967 by Nonesuch/Elektra Records meaning that the official period of commercial electronic music is 50 years in this year of 2017. This is a nice round figure over which to assess the question of genius within electronic music and to ask if it exists at all and, if so, in whom.

One thing I immediately noticed upon the asking of the original question in the Facebook group, as responses started to stack up, was that some people seemed to simply name people they liked. In any discussion of this nature you will always get people taking sides and cheerleading for their favorites. Our world has become a very partisan place and it seems to me that its often the nature of the case that people run to the barricades to support their favorites without necessarily knowing why or having any sort of reasonable or rhetorical case for supporting their choice. But if these people had had to make a case for why when they chose their genius then maybe there would have been less suggestions. Nevertheless, if we are to talk about "genius" at all then it must be the case that we can name the criteria of genius and thus apply them to any suggested candidates in a meaningful way. "I think X is a genius because I like them" is never going to fly. This same strategy, it seems to me, is also a way to undercut those who say that genius doesn't exist. Well, again, it can exist if we want to take various qualities or achievements, draw them up as criteria and call the resulting thing "genius".

This strategy is to side step the arguments (of which there seemed to be quite a few) that "genius doesn't exist". Others argued that even if we could name something "genius" then it wasn't "one dimensional" and it didn't allow or mandate ranking. Now aside from the fact that musicians have been ranked on a weekly basis in various charts from the 1950s onwards (and not always based on sales), no one is necessarily suggesting a "ranking of the geniuses" anyway. As already stated, it must surely be an entirely legitimate activity to survey the history of a field and pull out the most notable figures. We can call these people geniuses or we can call them something else as suits our taste. The fact remains that such a process, I think, can be done and might even have some worth for the understanding of the field of electronic music as a whole. I am very fortunate in that this group I started, which now has over 400 members, contains some very thoughtful and knowledgeable people. Utilizing their knowledge and intelligence a question about genius in electronic music could have numerous heuristic uses. One such use could be creating a network of influences and connections so that we could better see how electronic music has been invented and how it has metamorphosized and developed during its history. This could be very useful, instructive and suggestive of further electronic music in the future.

And so if we are going to ask this question at all then we need to fill out the notion of genius with some ideas. I am going to take a stab at this in an electronic music context. I think that, firstly, a genius must demonstrate influence beyond their own work. So having "a successful career" as a self-contained artist is not enough here. What you do and have done must manifestly affect how others think about the discipline. I think they should be a person who is running ahead of the pack of their peers rather than following or making no impact. So here people known to be experimentalists, people having one idea after another and inventing new ways and techniques to do things come to the fore. Extending that idea, I think that a genius, as I'm trying to define it here, must be doing something that others aren't doing so that, in some way, they extend and expand the artistic field of expression or ideas of what even counts as the art form of electronic music. This might also be called, in that horrible phrase, thinking outside the box.  Added to this could be the idea of those who operate with such forward thinking notions that there is not currently the equipment available for these people to express themselves as they envisage. And so they create their own equipment or have it commissioned to be made. There are other criteria that we could probably think of to begin to construct a disciplinary matrix of genius to measure electronic music practitioners against. Perhaps you can think of others too but this is my preliminary attempt.

So who gets captured in my genius net thinking this way? Well Kraftwerk do. Kraftwerk affected how others thought about electronic music and, all to their credit, different kinds of people too, both urban black American musicians who would go on to make Electro and Techno and white English guys who wanted to be pop stars like OMD. They also had equipment commissioned to be made as what they wanted to do didn't exist at the time. It stands to reason, then, that they were having ideas that others weren't. So my genius matrix is suggesting very strongly that there was some genius in Kraftwerk. But that same matrix also seems to knock out many of the names that were added to a semi-serious poll I started to name the geniuses of electronic music in the same Facebook group. Trent Reznor, for example, is a very famous electronic music. His career is successful and he has even won awards such as an Oscar and Grammys. His studio is an aladdin's cave of equipment. I would even count myself a fan. But is his work influencing others, changing how people think about the discipline and helping to birth new forms of electronic music? Compared to Kraftwerk the answer must be no and my matrix of criteria helps us to see that. Thus we can judge, critique and compare people.



                                                   Kraftwerk


Embedded within Gavin McCabe's original question was the notion of a "scenius" as opposed to a genius, a term used by Brian Eno who has a better case than most for having the term "genius" applied to himself. This takes the focus of innovative and extraordinary contribution and locates it not at the personal level, which a number of people would be against for political reasons, and instead locates it at the community level. The idea here is that all the things we might want to praise and take note of in a personal connection actually occur in communities. No one person originates ex nihilo. Rather, it is the case that people are nodes on a network and they progress together. One individual may have an idea but it is the fertility of the respective time and place in which ideas grow. So Detroit in the early 80s which birthed Techno or Berlin in the late 60s which birthed various forms of Kosmische and eventually Berlin School or Bristol, England, in the late 80s and early 90s which gave us various forms of urban beat music through the collective of artists called The Wild Bunch who would become Massive Attack, producer Nellee Hooper and performer Tricky as well. Early Portishead were also influenced by this scene. You will be able to think of lots of other communities like this too.


                                             Brian Eno in 1973


I have a lot of time for this idea for it has a lot to recommend it. But in the end I don't see the need to make one choice or the other. The business of mapping the connections between electronic music practitioners can involve noting the most vital and creative scenes but also the main players within them. Another marker of a genius as opposed to a scenius could also be people who move beyond their immediate circumstances into others but with the same level of influence and activity. A good example here is Brian Eno himself who has worked and recorded in numerous different scenarios with equal success from working with German krautrockers in the mid 70s such as Harmonia (which contained Cluster members Roedelius and Moebius as well as ex-Kraftwerk and Neu! guitarist, Michael Rother) to working with true genius David Bowie and even cod rockers, U2. And that is without mentioning his own work, influenced by others as I'm sure he would be the first to admit, in the world of ambient music. So what I am saying is that we can note the individual contributions of a figure like Eno but also note the places he has been and the people he came into contact with. We don't need to choose between genius and scenius because we can map both in an effort to understand the whole.

In the end, an interest in mapping either phenomena is based on wanting a wider field of understanding for the discipline of electronic music with which you are involved. This is both important and necessary in order to understand the context in which electronic music is taking place and the places it has been before. Electronic music, as I have previously noted, is supremely a music of both possibility and ideas for when you turn the electricity on and direct it through many various devices things become possible that formerly were not and, depending on your setup and desired outcomes, not necessarily with any great stability or predictability. Human beings, as one of their notable traits, are copyists. Indeed, we learn all the languages we speak by imitation of the sounds we hear others making and, through our intelligence, we learn to manipulate these things for our own purposes and advantages. And so learning from one another comes naturally to us. This, I think, demonstrates that all progress and learning is communitarian in origin - it relies on others - but, at the same time, it doesn't deny the possibility of the especially gifted or notable individual. I'm happy to agree that the quite short history of electronic music, commercial or not, has contained both fertile sceniuses and possibly one or two geniuses as well. But who they are and which made the most difference will be a matter of a hundred Internet arguments. Or maybe even more than that.

But there is nothing wrong with that. Progress comes through interaction with others. That's why I started a Facebook group called "Electronic Music Philosophy" at all.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Whose Afraid of The Art of Noises?

One of the foremost music producers of the 1980s was the British musician and producer, Trevor Horn. Horn, known for his utter fastidiousness and attention to detail, first came to prominence with The Buggles, briefly joined Yes and then settled into a role producing the most sumptuous, crafted pop of the decade. ABC's The Lexicon of Love, The Pet Shops Boys's Introspective and Yes's 90125 are all examples of his work as are Relax by Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Duel by Propaganda and Slave To The Rhythm by Grace Jones. Between 1983 and 1985 Horn could do no wrong. He was named Producer of the Year in two of those three years and, besides much of the stuff I've mentioned here, he also managed to sign and be involved with a band called The Art of Noise. How much he was involved with them is now a matter of dispute as the team Horn had put together, Anne Dudley, programmer J.J. Jeczalik and Gary Langan, would acrimoniously split with him and the pretentious journalist, Paul Morley, who, on his own admission, had forced his way into the collective as he liked the name so much. 





The Art of Noise did have some high points. Wikipedia describes them as an "avant-garde" group. Their name was taken from a pamphlet written in 1913 by an Italian futurist painter called Luigi Russolo, "The Art of Noises". (Jeczalik had insisted The Art of Noise dropped the "s".) Perhaps their best album (because most original) is their first, Whose Afraid of The Art of Noise? which contains their well known tracks Beat Box, Close (To The Edit) and Moments in Love. Their sound had first appeared in the Yes album 90125 as the core workers in the group had been the team Horn had put together to help him with his production work. It was based around use of sounds or noises and facilitated by the Fairlight computer which enabled sounds to be input and then manipulated to musical purposes. Horn and The Art of Noise weren't the only ones doing this at that time though. Peter Gabriel and Jean-Michel Jarre were amongst others enthusiastically embracing this technology. The 1980s was really when the sampling revolution took hold as devices were invented which made the tape manipulations of earlier decades of the 20th century obsolete.

Quite what Luigi Russolo would have made of this himself we will never know but we can read his futurist manifesto on the future of music and make an educated guess. As stated above, Russolo himself was a painter and the immediate temptation is to imagine that he thought of sound much as he thought of paints, things to be mixed and used on a canvas in innumerable combinations to create textures and mixtures as yet unthought of. This seems to be the way he is thinking when he writes in The Art of Noises that "We must break at all costs from this restrictive circle of pure sounds (by which he meant the conventional orchestra) and conquer the infinite variety of noise-sounds." This thought in itself gives away at least one motivating factor in Russolo's writing on this subject: he conceives of music in terms of its constituent parts, as sounds. I think this is a very important thing to note and probably more so then the actual text of The Art of Noises, although there is much in it that is noteworthy too. Music is made up of sounds. It is to me a revolutionary thought and something that I think needs to be thought about and meditated on again and again by all musicians. 

But what of the content of The Art of Noises itself? Well, the pamphlet is in the literary form of a letter addressed to an acquaintance of Russolo's and only takes about 25 minutes to read. Its not long but a concise argument for how music should proceed in the future and what it should focus on. In even such a brief treatise Russolo manages to criticize a music he sees as standing still based on orchestral sounds a number of times and seems very animated that musical art should not mark time but move forward. This lazy fixation with conventional sounds Russolo links back to The Greeks "with their musical theory mathematically determined by Pythagoras, according to which only some consonant intervals were admitted." This, according to Russolo, has "limited the domain of music until now and made almost impossible the harmony they were unaware of." What strikes me about this description is Russolo's recognition that any definition of canonical sounds or sound-making devices (such as the instruments of the orchestra) leaves out a whole world of sounds. Why should they not find musical uses too? Russolo perceives of a greater harmony than any traditional orchestra is capable of.

This strikes a suitably disharmonic chord with me for in this manifesto for noisy music from over a century ago I see still today glimmers of what a truly avant-garde, forward-thinking and exploratory, experimental music should be: a study of sound. Russolo already here talks about "the timbre that characterizes and distinguishes" sounds and much of the treatise is about bringing this to the fore and using it musically. And it is not a matter of taste either for as he says:

"Some will object that noise is necessarily unpleasant to the ear. The objection is futile, and I don't intend to refute it, to enumerate all the delicate noises that give pleasant sensation. To convince you of the surprising variety of noises, I will mention thunder, wind, cascades, rivers, streams, leaves, a horse trotting away, the starts and jumps of a carriage on the pavement, the white solemn breathing of a city at night, all the noises made by feline and domestic animals and all those a man's mouth can make without talking or singing."

This is, of course, but a short catalogue of many other possibilities. Russolo's point is that noises previously thought of as "unmusical" are not simply "unpleasant" and much less undesirable. His point is that some noises are pleasant in any case, if not currently connected with musical purposes, and that the musical uses of sounds stretch further than a tiny number of canonized instruments and the sounds they can make. This latter point was the thing The Art of Noise took up in their work utilizing the possibilities of the Fairlight to integrate these so-called non-musical sounds into their productions. Such sampling is today a commonplace occurrence and can be done on numerous devices or any home computer device with suitable software installed. But it is not the case that Russolo sees the future of music as the reproduction of noises in the environment for he goes further than reproduction. Indeed, he explicitly warns that "the art of noises must not be limited to a mere imitative reproduction". This opens the door to the creation of noises - new sounds!

It is hard to read this as anything new when you are reading it in 2016. There are numerous devices available now which can make "new sounds" at the push of a button. If you have the Absynth software synthesizer you will know it has a button at the bottom of its interface labeled "Mutate". Push it and one of the synth's presets will be mutated by an amount of random mutation that you have set by moving two sliders. You could push this button forever getting an endless supply of variations on the sound you started with. Or you could switch to another sound as starting point and get another limitless set. But for Russolo such a device would have been a far off dream. But what he had that a piece of fancy technology today does not have is an imagination and some ideas. I find this passage from The Art of Noises particularly inspiring:

"Noise accompanies every manifestation of our life. Noise is familiar to us. Noise has the power to bring us back to life. On the other hand, sound, foreign to life, always a musical, outside thing, an occasional element, has come to strike our ears no more than an overly familiar face does our eye. Noise, gushing confusely and irregularly out of life, is never totally revealed to us and it keeps in store for us innumerable surprises for our benefit. We feel certain that in selecting and coordinating all noises we will enrich men with a voluptuousness they did not expect."

This paragraph is fairly dripping with the idea that in a music of noises is a vitality that will not be denied. I thought of this paragraph when reading a question that was recently posed in my Facebook group, Electronic Music Philosophy. There someone recently asked about avant-garde music and what the other members of the group thought it was. I think that what Luigi Russolo talks about is, a music focused on noises and sound. A music that wants to explore timbre, that is avant-garde. It may be that such a music is not recognized by some even as music. And there's nothing at all wrong with that. Such a music should not feel comfortable with the popular praises or the disguises of mainstream thinking and ideas. It should aim to serve as a stumbling block for those who cannot see past their conventions. Even today in 2016 with our synths with "mutate" buttons a music of noises is yet to fully build on the impact that people such as Russolo himself made.

And so we come to the conclusion of The Art of Noises and its worth quoting many of Russolo's main points in his own words:

1. "We must enlarge and enrich more and more the domain of musical sounds... This need and tendency can be totally realized only through the joining and substituting of noises to and for musical sounds."

2. "We must replace the limited variety of timbres of orchestral instruments by the infinite variety of timbres of noises obtained through special mechanisms."

3. "The musician's sensibility, once he is rid of facile, traditional rhythms, will find in the domain of noises the means of development and renewal, an easy task, since each noise offers us the union of the most diverse rhythms as well as its dominant one."

4. "Each noise possesses among its irregular vibrations a predominant basic pitch. This will make it easy to obtain, while building instruments meant to product this very sound, a very wide variety of pitches, half-pitches and quarter-pitches. The variety of pitches will not deprive each noise of its characteristic timbre but, rather, increase its range."

6. "This new orchestra will produce the most complex and newest sonic emotions, not through a succession of imitative noises reproducing life, but rather through a fantastic association of those varied sounds."

7. "The variety of noises is infinite... We will not have to imitate these noises but rather to combine them according to our artistic fantasy." 

8. "We invite all the truly gifted and bold young musicians to analyze all noises so as to understand their different composing rhythms, their main and their secondary pitches. Comparing these noise sounds to other sounds they will realize how the latter are more varied than the former. Thus the comprehension, the taste, and the passion for noises will be developed. Our expanded sensibility will gain futurist ears as it already has futurist eyes. In a few years, the engines of our industrial cities will be skillfully tuned so that every factory is turned into an intoxicating orchestra of noises."


Recently when looking through a Facebook group focused on modular synths I came across a person who had asked a question of the group. He was new to modular synthesis but had noticed in his researches that, to paraphrase, "not much music of the song variety" seemed to be made with this equipment. He had presented his question as one looking to move forward in his own music making in equipment terms and yet it seemed that his thinking about music had not similarly been given the necessary kick from behind to accompany this. Perhaps this was an example of a phenomenon I have covered before - the fixation on equipment. If so, it would be a perfect example of how fixation with things takes over and stunts the growth of ideas which is vital to a forward-thinking musical outlook. Here was a man who wanted to get hold of new equipment, modern technology the likes of which many electronic pioneers would have begged for, but he wanted to restrict it to fairly basic ideas of what music even was. It did not even occur to him that with new equipment he could explore new ideas or maybe even forget the things he thought and go off down some dark, musical alley and find himself a new set of ideas.

Such a person was Luigi Russolo, the futurist painter with an interest in future music. His manifesto for enriching, expanding and learning from a new palette of sounds is still relevant to music makers today. This is the area in which I think avant-garde composers and music makers should be focusing on, particularly in the electronic arena with which I am primarily concerned. It is pitched at a level far below concerns with melody or counterpoint or harmony. It is focused on sounds and noises themselves in all their difference and similarity, in all their possibilities for combination, comparison and juxtaposition. To make such music will be risky. It will be to be seen as maybe even being unmusical. But, especially with all the tools now at our disposal, it is a task that we electronic music makers would be irresponsible to ignore. 

The art of noises is still the future.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Making Electronic Music

Today's blog intends to be quite practical. My subject is composing electronic music but, immediately, I find myself in the middle of a quandary. Composing is quite an old word, first no doubt applied to orchestra style music, which means to write music. But my pre-reflective thoughts on how electronic music is made make me doubt if its an appropriate one. Is electronic music in our day and age "composed"? Is it even written? These are quite classical notions about how one goes about creating pieces of music and are an example of how past, conventional notions get carried forward without being quite appropriate. The sense is of something done with aforethought and yet, it seems to me, for many, including myself, this is not how they make electronic music at all.


Jean-Michel Jarre has an array of gear of all types yet strikes you as "a composer" of electronic music in a quite traditional way.


Of course, I am sure that there are those who, to all intents and purposes, imagine that they are doing classical composing. Such people will work note by note, probably writing out a score in traditional musical notation, for the purposes of expressly producing a musical score. This, after all, is what composing music is if you think like this. This is traditional music with an electronic sound palette. People doing this probably use traditional musical keyboards. But I cannot imagine that this involves many people. How does one score an acid bassline or an abstract, atonal sound collage? Working the classical way, then, tends to suggest limited styles of music. But there are plenty of non-classical, citizen electronic musicians in cities across the globe who know nothing about the musical theory this might require. Such people would not know their A flat minor from their G sharp major. Nor would they care to know since the consequences of any difference would never have arisen in any music they have ever made on an electronic device.

So immediately something I've highlighted in previous blogs comes to the fore. This is that whatever modern electronic music is it is something taken out of the hands of professionals schooled in an old fashioned discipline. Require someone playing with samples on some app on an iPad to learn musical notation or take lessons in harmony and counterpoint and you will be greeted by a blank stare of bewilderment. This will likely not only be because they have little grasp of what is being asked of them but also because it will be totally inappropriate to what it is they are doing. There are lots of words we could use to describe most electronic music these days (which I like to refer to as citizen electronics). Instinctive, etherial and temporary are just some of these. I venture to suggest that much music made with electronics today is merely "music of the moment," as it were. Developments in both media and culture have created a landscape in which music makers have been encouraged to make their collection of sounds, post it somewhere, and then move on.

Of course, I don't just put this down to "media and culture". People generally seem to have become more momentary. A lot of music these days isn't even formal pieces of music at all. Its You Tube jams (or their equivalent elsewhere). In some ways this is analogous to what I imagine in former times must have been sing-a-longs or piano playing in the front room at home. The thing is that these days we have sound and video recorders in our hands, bags or pockets and so every moment has the potential to be captured. So much electronic music today isn't "a song I have composed". Instead, its "three minutes of me twiddling knobs or moving my fingers across a screen not to be taken too seriously". The fact that others post numerous tracks or videos like this encourages others to do the same. A culture is built up.

Some people sniff at this. (I've had replies to previous blogs where apparently trained musicians have bemoaned the fact that today many music makers know nothing about music theory.) They see it as a degrading direction for music to take. They see old skills and an appropriate seriousness being whittled away by a very modern, soundbite-obsessed triviality made up of music for people with 30 second attention spans. What cannot be doubted is that electronic music devices, the culture they are used in and the opportunities new technologies have brought, democratizing and de-professionalizing music making in the process, have changed what music is and how it is seen today. Witness the almost daily requests for "free music" these days as one consequence of this. There is now so much "music" in the world that in many places it is almost a worthless commodity.

Such consequences are not my topic for today though and so we must merely note this and move on, asking how this citizen's electronic music is made instead. One immediate way that comes to mind is looping. Looping has been greatly facilitated and encouraged by new technologies, both hardware and software, and these have helped not just pure electronics players but people such as guitarists as well. But looping, particularly of the electronics kind such as we find in a software like Ableton Live, does tend to produce certain types of songs and it encourages you to think of a musical work as merely the building and layering of loops or phrases (obviously). A method, a habit, is encouraged. Other softwares, encouraged by Ableton's success no doubt, have similar phrase looping or block-building capabilities. Of course, the idea of a musical phrase is itself not new but people are lazy, habit-forming. It is very easy to "go with the flow". In a world where there were few musicians about this wouldn't be a problem. But what about a highly technological world in which millions of people are making music the same way and all posting it to the Internet? Differentiating yourself, creating a unique musical identity, becomes an issue.


Creating loops and clips in Ableton Live.


Another way I think much electronic music is made today is somewhat by instinct or "by feelz" to use the vernacular of our time. What's more, saying it is "made", a rather vulgar but more appropriate description than "written" or "composed" perhaps, is probably the best we can do. Electronic music today can be swiping your fingers across touchscreens on computer programs (or hardware devices like kaossilators). It can be generating static or high-pitched squeals from electronic circuits that are either hacked or re-purposed lab equipment. It can be be wiring and re-wiring very scientific looking things that don't, at first glance, seem very musical at all. Its hard to say that music is composed or written this way. Such devices do not sit easily within such a description. Instead, its seems its much more the case the music made in such ways is about some connection between the user of the equipment and the equipment used. Its about creating a moment or a feeling, capturing something that only existed there and then. This is the opposite of sitting down intending to write some objective thing. This, indeed, is subjectivism.

There can be no doubt that today a citizen's electronic music has been established. This was something that, a few decades ago, the electronic composer Morton Subotnick foresaw, although it is doubtful he saw it happening so soon. Today almost anyone with only a few units of their local currency can buy some device or program and make a passable attempt at a piece of electronic music. To some, this is progress pure and simple. But it changes things. In former times music making was based on skill and training in quite a formal way. Even those not professionalized as musicians or composers had need to train themselves to do what they did in non-formal contexts. But today anyone can walk into a store or log into an online shop and purchase devices that come with little training or musical learning required. I think that many of the people who do this don't get any musical training or do any musical learning either once they have what they wanted. What is happening here is not an extension of some professional discipline at all. It is as simple as someone's untutored musical expression.


Would you describe making music on the Korg Kaossilator Pro as "composing" or "writing"?


Sometimes this results in new things or adaptations of old ones. "Finger drumming" on electronic pads would be a case in point here. Specifically technological developments would be things like turntablism or the playing of touch surfaces. There are improvisational and "once only" elements to these things. They are live performances captured rather than the rote playing of something purposefully and studiously written or composed. What's more, when one engineers in random elements or even takes the detailed direction of the music out of the performer's hands with complex or random sequencers, such as is possible on modular systems, for example, then distance starts to open up between the music maker and the music made. It then becomes legitimate to ask if we are even composers anymore or more like conductors deciding a broad direction or a feel but not responsible personally for every decision and every sound. It used to be quite simple. A composer wrote a score and a musician read the score and replicated it on their instrument. Today someone might switch on a thing, set up various parameters, let it run for a length of time, and then switch it off again, having captured the sounds it made in between. Its not the same thing. But both could sound equally musical.


Compositional tool or sonic playtime?


I'll be honest that I'm more than a little interested in how people who are these modern citizen electronic musicians go about making their own music. I'm interested in the processes they use. Partly, of course, this will be to do with what equipment they are using and this too will have been guided by the advertising strategies of gear sellers and the cultural choices of the groups they've been influenced by. But, regardless of that, there will still be personal choices to make about how to use what they have acquired. For me it has all been a very instinctual thing. I could, at one point, have gone down the formal route and learnt about chords and scales. But I veered off in a different direction. When I came back to making my own music I had become a person who just very much wanted to express feelings or ideas with sounds. Electronics enabled me to do that because it required little effort (!) apart from feeling a certain way and something to express that through. Electronic music offers a large and varied sound palette and requires little of the music maker to get started. Its easy access.

To some this will be illegitimate. To them music is not worthy of the name unless some skill or knowledge is involved and to achieve something worthwhile is difficult. But even in a blog two days ago I quoted Brian Eno describing himself as "a non-musician". Eno was pointing out that music is about more than a formally adjudicated competence in some instrument or theory. Eno himself described his musical skill as a kind of "ingenuity". I think this ingenuity is what has been brought to the fore in this wave of citizen electronics as people make use of their touch devices, synthesizers, noise-making boxes, modular systems, computer programs, midi controllers and much else to give musical expression to things. Of course, having things does not equal having any musical sense or musicality. As more people make electronic music so more of it will be poor, unskillful and, in many ways, worthless. However, none of this negates our critical faculties or our ability to pick and choose. It may mean though, as we have seen, that there is so much music about it becomes hard to know where to find the good in amongst all the bad. 

Electronics has changed the world of music. What was once the domain of trained musicians and formal composers is now an area where any person with a phone and an app can join in. It is a democracy of opportunity. There will be a sense in which formal music needs to catch up with this development. However, the opposite is also true and all these new people with music making possibilities in their hands will need to catch up with music. For its not the case that all that went before in music is now worthless, swept away by citizen musicians as if they were sweeping away some worthless elite. The task now, as I see it, is for a mutual exploration of the new musical terrain that electronics open up. Who has yet mapped all the possibilities of a modular synthesizer, for example? Or who has catalogued all the possibilities of electronically generated and manipulated timbre? Some will be content with triviality and entertainment in the moment, of course. But for others new frontiers await.


PS If anyone wants to say how they make their electronic music, and what they conceive of themselves as doing - composing, writing, making, performing, etc - I'd be glad if people left their own comments either below the blog here or where you see this blog posted. Thank you.



If you liked this discussion and want more please feel free to join my growing Facebook group Electronic Music Philosophy.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Insights From Artist Interviews

In recent days I've been spending a lot of time reading various artist interviews. As I have a preference for the written word (which is why I write blogs and don't make videos) this has meant a lot of reading. There came a point in this process when I realized that I could probably snip a few of the questions and answers from their immediate locations and make a blog from some of these. These cuttings could address points that I've seen raised recently both in my own former blogs and in some of the discussions they have aroused. All the people I will bring into this blog will be "famous" to a greater or lesser degree. But I don't mean to use these people as arguments from authority (as philosophers call it). Setting aside the trappings of fame, they are just other electronic musicians although, granted, some if not all have great experience. Its just my naive view that people can learn something from the experiences of others. So in what follows I will introduce a few artists, set up the context for them and then present the question they were asked, the answer they gave and what it teaches me. Hopefully, this will have some worth for others too. I'll also slip in a link to their music just because I can and to give a hint to those who may not have heard of some of the artists included.


1. Venetian Snares (Aaron Funk)


Some while ago Canadian Aaron Funk, better known as Venetian Snares, had a magnificent stumble of an interview when he said some things that, apparently, you shouldn't say. Funk, like many electronic musicians, including others I will bring into this blog, doesn't like doing interviews or fulfilling media duties because he is quite secretive and private. Fair enough. I wouldn't either. This is all part of a fame equation it seems. It got to the stage some years back where he started to not want to release music. At which point I snip from an interview with him...


VS: I think 2007 was the point when I became really at odds with releasing music.

Interviewer (I): What made you feel like that? You seem to have always been at odds with it.

VS: Um... I don't know. I love making music but its kinda hard for me to put it out to be honest. The idea of it being heard by people who want to hear it fucks with my head so, you know... its easier to choose to keep it to myself.

I: Its an interesting position to have as an artist.

VS: Of course. As soon as you release records some person hearing it will think that this record is a product for them to enjoy whereas that's not my intent making it whatsoever. Its for me while I'm creating it. I don't know. People coming at you from that angle is kinda sickening, you know?

I: As soon as you create something and put it out there its no longer under your control.

VS: No. Its out in the world of fucking IMDB one-to-tens, its out there in the database of millions of people shooting off opinions at each other that they believe they're formulating on their own.

In print this interview was presented as "Venetian Snares hates everyone including his fans". But the truth, as often is the case, was a bit more subtle than this. Essentially, Snares was presenting a modern dichotomy for the electronic artist who works alone creating and getting the buzz of creation entirely to his or her own requirements. But then, if they choose to share it, it becomes prey to a lot of random views which were nothing to do with the context of creation. The artist becomes prey to a lot of opinions that were nothing to do with what he was doing. Snares almost has a "what has my music got to do with you?" attitude here. And I somewhat understand that as someone who finds his own music very personal. Venetian Snares gives voice to a very modern problem here for electronic musicians who are working away in their homes on essentially very private projects. To then be subject to public expectations is often a burden.


2. David Bowie


David Bowie needs no introduction. The picture here is from when he had a stint as the keyboard player on Iggy Pop's "The Idiot" tour in 1977. Around the same time he was producing his so called "Berlin Trilogy" of albums which were influenced by krautrock and the Germanic sounds of the seventies. Bowie was, perhaps, the consummate artist. Musician was a word too narrowly confined to contain him. His electronic meanderings of the time, such as the track Subterraneans which finished his 1977 album "Low," were highly regarded but Bowie had long since become a star by then. In 1978 Bowie was asked by a British journalist to "assess his greatest contribution to rock". "I'm responsible for starting a whole new school of pretension," was his witty and pithy reply.

But concealed beneath the deflecting wit I see a reservoir of truth. Bowie's career was carried out only through the medium of a succession of characters right from Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane through to the Thin White Duke, the Stadium Superstar of the mid 80s and on. And its not as if these were peripheral to the act. They were the act. A little digging reveals that Bowie had biographies and life stories worked out for these characters. An album like 1995's "Outside", for example, is a whole detailed scenario worked out with characters, storyline and plot. So for Bowie's "pretension" in the quote we can substitute the word "creation". For Bowie the music needed a whole creative context worked out in detail over which the sounds could be laid like a blanket and I wonder how many others go that far? Music and ideas were inseparable siamese twins for David Bowie.


3. Brian Eno


A famous collaborator of Bowie's at the time was Brian Eno, the Roxy Music synthesizer dabbler who had gone off to Germany in the mid 70s to jam with Harmonia, released some ambient music and become something of a sound guru. In the 70s he once made a throwaway comment that he was a "non-musician," a comment which some saw as a reverse conceit of some kind. In a later interview Eno explained what he had meant by it.

"It was a case of taking a position deliberately in opposition to another one. I don't say it much anymore but I said it when I said it there because there was such an implicit and tacit belief that virtuosity was the sine qua non of music and there was no other way of approaching it. And that seemed to be so transparently false in terms of rock music in particular. I thought it was well worth saying that whatever I was doing it wasn't that. And I thought the best way to do it was to say that I was a non-musician.... When I say "musician" I wouldn't apply it to myself as a synthesizer player or a player of tape recorders because I usually mean someone with a digital skill that they then apply to an instrument. I don't really have that so strictly speaking I'm a non-musician. None of my skills are manual, they're not to do with manipulation in that sense, they're more to do with ingenuity I suppose."

Eno is then asked if he ever had any formal music training or felt any pressure to get some.

"No, no I haven't really. I can't think of a time that I ever thought that."

What strikes me about this exchange is how relevant it is to the current situation in which the vast majority of electronic musicians are essentially ordinary citizens at home. With their electronic things. For them, electronic music is not about learning scales or musical theory. Its not about a formal training process or, indeed, anything formal at all. It is about the instant satisfaction of making a noise. It is, to paraphrase Eno, about ingenuity over technical skill. In response to some of my blogs I have found some, presumably of an old school variety, who have mumbled and grumbled about this. But electronic music is overwhelmingly the paradigm of "ingenuity" and Eno stands as one of the greatest examples of this.


4. Coil (John Balance and Peter Christopherson)


I mentioned Coil as an example in a recent blog of mine and in reading several interviews with them to get a feel for what they were about musically I came across the following exchange.

I: You've said before that you work very instinctually. How do you mean, exactly?

JB: I have notebooks and ideas and its just grabbing, really: trying to be informed by the earth and the etheric. And trying, by any means whatsoever, to make that into a solid object, or a sound object, or a record. And that's what we've always tried to do. It seems - we don't create it, really. It's already there. We just assemble a kit. 

PC: We have discussions sometimes about the feeling behind a track that's about to be started. It might be a discussion about a picture or a feeling or a moment in a film.

JB: Sometimes we set down a whole page of parameters: it should do this, it should do that, it should reflect the moon, it should be lunar. Or we'll burn some incense or let the dogs run wild around the room while we're doing it - or we'll shut them in the garden. Anything like that. Or eat carrots for a week and then do something. Just so some chemistry within us is deliberately changed. 

PC: As for the music itself, its not like "Let's set up a rhythm and set up a bass." We'll try combinations of equipment or filters or computer programs almost at random and then...

JB: Something hits.

PC: There will be something about one of them you like and you want to develop. Its almost like the process of selection is the most important thing.

I find this little explicative exchange fascinating. First, there is the notion that to do music you need to change the dynamic, to get your head on. This alone is interesting in a world where many electronic music makers are citizen musicians with a 9 to 5 who do music in their spare time. I wonder, what state are they in when they come to create? Is it a creatively fruitful one? Or is it a lowest common denominator one only good enough to produce a casual You Tube jam not meant to be taken seriously? Further, John Balance held to a view of the musician as conduit. He did not think he created the music. He thought he was an agent through which it manifested itself. This perhaps explains his belief in the necessity for some kind of preparation. Christopherson completes this thinking with his own contribution to the discussion and the suggestion that this random process of selection "is the most important thing". Food for thought indeed.


5. Sean Booth (Autechre)


Sean Booth and Rob Brown of Autechre are different to many of the current electronic musicians of our day, not least the hipster or gear collecting varieties, in that they deliberately and purposefully use software to make their music. The reason for this is they value control most of all as electronic musicians. Maximum manipulation is their overwhelming artistic desire and it is only in designing custom software that they feel this aim is satisfied to its maximum ability. If you have heard much of their music this will begin to make more sense. But this controlling, software-based music might, from the outside, come across as a little cold. In a Q+A session Autechre subjected themselves to back in 2013 Sean Booth of the band was asked if they ever take an interest in how their music "stimulates the nervous system and our physiology (not just in terms of emotions)?" In a related question he was also asked if the main goal of the band was "to produce music that is emotionally appealing to yourselves, or do you lean more towards the sound designs/textures that music can be manipulated into without having the emotive element in the forefront of the music making process?" His answer is interesting:

"To be honest I think that everything has some emotional element but we're not really thinking about that when we do stuff. Its not that we don't feel that emotions are important, more that its hard for me to imagine a sound that does not convey some sense of something. And quite often when people discuss emotions in music they only think of happy and sad as being emotions when, in my opinion, emotions are a lot more than that. E.g. if we put out a really angry track then people rarely describe it that way. They would more likely say it was unlistenable or difficult. The emphasis moves from expression to design. Maybe they just fail to recognise it as expressive if they think its very technical."

The thoughts that come from this quite profound answer are worth pondering, in my view, not least electronic music's image (sometimes) as something cold and technical. As people who use software to create dense and complex electronic noise collages, Autechre might be especially open to such a charge. However, the sonic realities turn out to be somewhat different and this should lead us to ask questions about what is going on and how electronic sound, something on the one hand uncaring and impassive, can come to be intimate and familiar.


6. Jean-Michel Jarre


Jean-Michel Jarre is currently celebrating 40 years since the release of the record, made in his kitchen in 6 weeks, which made his name and gave him a life of fame and fortune. That record, of course, was Oxygène. Jarre has been very active lately. In the last year or so he has put out 3 albums, two volumes of a collaborative project he called "Electronica" and the third part of the Oxygene trilogy. He has also toured his Electronica project. In the corresponding period he has also given numerous interviews and this gives a little insight into the processes that such well known electronic musicians go through. For example, he was asked regarding the track Close Your Eyes which he collaborated on with his fellow Frenchmen, Air.

I: So presumably you travelled to everybody's studios, taking your own software?

JMJ: For every artist it was slightly different. With somebody like Air in Paris we worked first in separate studios and then we joined forces in my studio. Nicolas from Air had this idea where he said it would be great if we used all the different generations of musical instruments. We started with the first oscillators from when I was a student with Pierre Schaeffer (at the Groupe de Recherche Musicales centre in Paris), synthesizers from my time with Stockhausen, and then also doing the first loop of the song with scissors and sellotape and magnetic tape. Then we used the first drum machine, the first modular synth, the monophonic Moog synthesizer moving to the polyphonic analogue synthesizer, the Fairlight, to samplers, to the first digital keyboards, to plugins and the last sound of the track has been made with an iPad. We said it shouldn't be visible, it was more of an exercise for us.

What strikes me here (aside from the fact that if you are Jean-Michel Jarre or Air then you have access to all this stuff!) is that even millionaire superstars need creative ways in which to create, puzzles to solve as part of the creative process. Often creation is approached very unimaginatively, very straight, and it is a chore as a result. This may not be the best thing for encouraging creativity to take place. And so tasks within the task need inventing so that the creativity you require may almost be a by-product of doing something else which may not, in itself, have been creative but encouraged the creativity that you hoped to achieve.


7. Richard D. James (Aphex Twin)


Richard James, better known as Aphex Twin, has been the darling of many fans of a certain kind of electronic music for many years. Known to be excessively secretive and with an autistic need to know everything that there is to know both about every possible electronic device that can make sound and about musical theory, he is rumoured to have a huge backlog of material most of which has never reached the public's ears. All this is true whilst he is largely unknown to the mass of the population and I'm sure he could walk down nearly any street without being recognised. His most popular track is probably Window Licker which was accompanied by a video from Chris Cunningham that received heavy MTV rotation back in 1999 when the track came out. In one of his rare interviews he was asked about what he sees himself as.

I: Would it be fair to say that you're a sound artist as much as a musician?

RDJ: Yeah. Its all about sound but people forget that. They think "Oh, I want to hear a nice tune." But what you're actually saying is you want to hear the combination of frequencies that make you feel a certain way. And more excitingly, its about finding out the new ones. A lot of composers before me have been on this mission to change the world by getting off equal temperament (an equal temperament is a system of tuning in which every pair of adjacent notes is separated by the same interval) and I'm definitely one of those.

You're brainwashed in the West with equal temperament, so its quite hard for people who like following rules to get outside of that and see what you can do. But for me its easy because I don't work like that. I work intuitively. I actually prefer it if I don't know what I'm supposed to do. If you've got an equal temperament piano keyboard then you know what you're going to get if you play certain chords. But I actually like it if you don't know where the notes are because then you do it intuitively. You're working out a new language, basically. New rules. And when you get new rules that work you're changing the physiology of your brain. And then your brain has to reconfigure itself in order to deal with it.

So if you hear a C-major chord with equal temperament you've heard it a million times before and your brain accepts it. But if you hear a chord that you've never heard before you're like "huh?" And your brain has to change shape to accept it. And once its changed shape then you've changed as a person in a tiny way. And if you have a whole combination of all these different frequencies you're basically reconfiguring your brain. And then you've changed as a person and you can go and do something else. Its a constant change. It could sound pretty cosmic and hippie but thats exactly whats going on.

I think this answer pretty much speaks for itself and is a testimony to how doing things differently both requires change and initiates it.


8. Hans-Joachim Roedelius (Kluster, Cluster and Qluster)


Hans-Joachim Roedelius has a very important place in the history of German electronic music. Not only was he one of the men who started the Zodiak Free Arts Lab in late 1960s Berlin, a place which gave birth to acts such as Kluster (later Cluster and two thirds of Harmonia), Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze and Conrad Schnitzler, but he played a key role in defining the German electronic music of the 1970s. His partner in Cluster (once called the best band in the world by Brian Eno) pictured above on the right, Dieter Moebius, described him as someone who could write the most beautiful melodies. For such a pioneer we might expect some impressive musical background or personal history. The truth is a little different as this snippet of an interview I found shows.

I: When did you start writing and producing music and what or who were your early passions and influences?

HJR: I'm an autodidact. There was no music school I went to. I can neither write nor read scores. But even so, the body of work that I created since I moved from healing (Roedelius was once a masseur) to tone-art in 1967 includes thousands of musical works, about 1000 texts/poems, an uncountable amount of photos, photo collages and films. There's a lot yet to come out from my archive of unreleased works.

I: Do you feel it important that an audience is able to deduct the processes and ideas behind a work purely on the basis of the music you make? If so, how do you make them transparent?

HJR: There are for sure not many people who are able to analyze music in this way and why should they anyway? I am most transparent as a person/artist, after everything that has happened to me and everything that I've done within the 80 years of my life! Its obvious in my work. I don't have to make anything transparent because I am what I am doing. Person and work are one.

What these answers reveal to me is something I think is probably common to all of the artists I'm referring to in this blog today. Its summed up in Roedelius's phrase "Person and work are one". So whether its Roedelius or Aphex Twin or Coil or Venetian Snares or any of the others something of the creator is revealed in the created. There is an identity factor at work which is revealing. Or is there? And what is your electronic music saying about you? What is it revealing that you didn't realize? Or maybe you are intending it to reveal?


9. John Cage


John Cage is a kind of dividing line when it comes to music. He is a person who makes you choose sides. And we should be forever grateful to him for that. For what John Cage reveals in his music as well as his talking about music is that something is at stake. Music is not, as our shallow, commercialized world would love us to think, just entertainment. It is much, much more but also much, much less than that. Music is our environment. Music is about hearing the sounds that are there. Cage is primarily known, in a compositional sense, for two things: chance and indeterminacy. Needless to say, he has been asked about these things many times and in this section of an interview I read he explains how they work and what they are for.

I: Is there a difference between chance and indeterminacy?

JC: Yes. I use the words "chance operation" when I'm writing music and making use of numbers that are derivative from the I Ching that I've used for so many years. That can produce a piece of music, such as the Music of Changes that I wrote in the early fifties, which is determinate. Its fixed and can be read in the same way that you read a piece by another composer. An indeterminate piece is written in such a way as a camera is made. In other words, the camera enables you to take a picture but it doesn't make precise in any way what picture you are going to take. So indeterminacy is like a camera, giving people the ability to take a variety of different pictures, but chance operations can produce a fixed picture or a fixed piece of music. Chance operations could also be used in making something indeterminate but they are two different things. In both cases, the common denominator is non-intention on the part of the person who is working. Most people, when they work, work with something in mind. I always work with nothing in mind.

I: You say you start out a piece with nothing in mind. How do you know when you are on the right track?

JC: There are many tracks, and they are all right. Take the I Ching itself. I recommend it; its the oldest book on earth. It comes from something like 4000 BC and consists of 64 hexagrams. It is a book of wisdom. You can ask a question and get an answer through the use of chance operations, which classically were the tossing of three coins six times to get a hexagram, or tossing yarrow sticks. I didn't do it that way; it took too long. It takes about half an hour to toss the yarrow sticks. Now you can do it with the computer very rapidly and you can get an answer to your question. It would be foolish to ask a question and get answers by means of chance operations if the question asked needed a particular answer. It would be absurd. So, implicit in the use of chance operations is that all of the answers answer all of the questions. That's very interesting. Curiously enough, I learned that when I was studying with Schoenberg years ago but I didn't know that I learned it. 

He sent us all to the blackboard with a problem in counterpoint, even though it was a class in harmony. He said "When you have the solution of the problem turn around and let me see it." I turned around and he said "That's correct. Now give me another solution of the same problem," and I did. I then turned around and he said, "Thats also correct, now another." It went that way until about 8 or 9 solutions. Then when he asked for another I said with some trepidation, "There are no more solutions," and he said, "Thats also correct." Then he said, "What is the principle underlying all of the questions?" I was flabbergasted. I'd always worshipped the man but at that point he ascended. It took me almost 30 years to learn the answer to that question and I think he would accept it. That is, the principle underlying all of the solutions is the question you ask. So there you are, and that goes along with all of the answers answer all of the questions. 

Now it doesn't take a genius to see that this outlook on things is very different to the closed, authorly concept of music making that is the default method beloved of what we might call the received western tradition. This thinks of music as the deliberate choices of writers satisfying their tastes or their "feelz" as modern language might have it. Cage, instead, thinks of writing as about questions and and of the answers as merely different directions of equal validity, all correct. It all puts egotistical tastes vey much in the shade. So what does it matter what you think? Each direction is a right answer.


10. Edgar Froese (Tangerine Dream)


Edgar Froese was the leader of Tangerine Dream from their formation in 1969 (coming out of Hans-Joachim Roedelius's Zodiak Free Arts Lab scene) until his untimely death in January 2015. During this time span he was one of those who invented styles of electronic music and simultaneously provided a voluminous back catalogue of albums both studio based and live. I have often pondered how one might create something "new" since things are always inevitably related to their predecessors. Froese was fortunate to be alive at a time when new music making tools and practices were becoming available but, that said, the genius of what he created must remain his alone. In the end, I think a simple quote of his explains much if you think about it and unpack its connotations:

"In the absurd often lies what is artistically possible." - Edgar Froese


What fool ever thought music had to make sense, right?



If you enjoy discussing electronic music, how its made, why its made or any such questions then my group Electronic Music Philosophy might be for you.