Saturday, 9 April 2016

Electronic Music Culture

Recently, quite spontaneously, I decided to make a 13 episode series of podcasts called the Electronic Oddities Podcast. I think I was probably stuck in a rut with my own work and I wanted a way out, a way to let my creativity and mind flow that wasn't concentrated on producing yet more music of my own. What better way to do this than by concentrating on other people's? The idea behind the podcast is a give a survey of what now amounts to almost 50 years of commercial and non-commercial electronic music, all the way from 1967's "Silver Apples of the Moon" by Morton Subotnick, the first commercially commissioned electronic music album, right up until the present day. (The series goes even earlier than that though with music from "Forbidden Planet" in 1956 and from Pierre Schaeffer and his Musique Concrete in 1948.) Of course, what electronic music even is is a big part of this subject. Most modern music has something to do with electricity in that it is amplified through speakers. The primary modern instrument in popular music, certainly in much of the mid to late 20th century, was the electric guitar where the electric part was crucial to the sound. And yet when we talk about electronic music in the context of my podcast or more generally we do not mean this. We mean music that specifically uses electronics to create or manipulate the sound. 

The pre-eminent modern electronic instrument is the synthesizer. This replaced the tape recorder as the primary instrument in electronically generated music when it began to be invented as a viable commercial instrument between 1963 and 1966. Subotnick had commissioned Don Buchla to create an electronic musical instrument that he could perform electronic classical music on. But Subotnick did not want to be bound within the confines of a piano keyboard and so Buchla's instrument did not have one. This meant that the music produced was unlikely to be strictly melodic or 3 minute pop songs which needed to have easily repeatable hooks and themes. The instrument Subotnick got was more suited to abstract sounds and exploring the realm of musical timbre. Of course, at broadly the same time Dr Robert Moog had also invented his Moog synthesizer. This did come with a keyboard attached and this enabled Moog synths, and all those that followed this lead, to stay within the prevailing musical paradigm, that based on the chromatic keyboard. Thus, with these two first commercially available synthesizers was set up a distinction which demonstrated something that was to run straight through the heart of all electronic music: your tools determine the boundaries of what you can do with them.

                 Buchla system 100 as used by Morton Subotnick

We can demonstrate this point further in a story told in a BBC documentary about Funk music that I watched recently. The documentary related how Funk was invented in the late 1960s by James Brown and Sly and The Family Stone. This music, in terms of the rhythm, emphasized the 1 and the key to the whole performance of Funk was a rhythm section of drum and bass which emphasized this 1, the first note of the musical phrase. Later on this became replaced by Disco in which a rhythm guitar became the key to the sound (think of anything by Chic that is driven by the playing of Nile Rodgers). But now think what happened in the 1980s. Up until this point the primary dance music of the era had been played by skilled musicians. But in the 1980s viable electronic instruments had been produced that could, in some sense, replace these people. Your rhythm section could now be a TB-303 or an SH-101 and a TR-808. And these weren't musicians playing Funk, Disco or Soul rhythms. They were machines. What you got instead of Funk, Soul and Disco was House, Techno and Electro. The tools and their boundaries and limitations dictated what came out the other end of the creative process. (Hip Hop, of course, would make use of sampling technology too to start to rework the old licks that people had actually played.)

                        A TB-303, your replacement bass player

In today's electronic music culture there are even more choices. People can make electronic music on tablet computers, the latest iteration of something which revolutionized electronic music yet again: the home computer. This particular device acted as something of a leveler and a democratizer in the field of electronic music because a computer was something that many people were likely to have in their homes anyway. Users were, thus, already familiar with the device if not with using it to make music. It was simply a case of buying a music program, installing it and then using it to make your music. But this music wasn't necessarily played. It could just be drawn. This was a world away from the early synths which were created from the ground up from electronics and were based on the model of oscillators and other devices which came from radio studios which is where the early pioneers in the use of electronic sound were originally to be found. At that time electronic music was a niche activity enjoyed only by the rare few and made with cumbersome machines. There was still, however, a physical connection between the music-maker and the physical instrument. Today popular music has been completely overrun by electronic sounds, not least due to the convenience of the computer. As Jean-Michel Jarre has said in his many recent public utterances around his "Electronica" project: "We won". He means that electronic music, once frowned upon and despised, is now the king of the popular music world. This is at least partly because it can be made with stuff already to hand and with the Internet even for free. Like a virus it has mutated and affected everyone. 

It was partly in this context that I decided to create my podcast series. Recently, I rejoined Facebook to get access to a number of the discussion groups that are there of a specialist nature. Electronic music is, or should be, partly about the community. It is good to refresh your own thinking by partaking in the thoughts of others. But on Facebook, as we all know, you also open yourself up to the hordes. And so it is that the other day I came across the latest video of Deadmau5 and his studio full of electronic music bling. Now I wasn't so fussed about the studio itself. Deadmau5 has made his money doing what he choses to do and he gets to spend it how he wants. No, it was more the comments of the young kids who consider themselves his fans that caught my attention. When I see a young kid of 15 or 16 writing in all seriousness that Deadmau5 is "the best electronic musician of all time" then that makes me step back and think "Hold on a minute. Do you know the history of electronic music, kid? Do you know how we got here and who brought us?" The answer, of course, is no, he doesn't. He has no idea that there has been 50 years of electronic music nor of the myriad types of electronic music that have been made in that time. He is not aware of the innovation and experimentation that has taken place in that time. He just likes Deadmau5's four to the floor beat and software sequenced chords. He's allowed to like it. But when he makes bold statements we are allowed to step in and say "Hold on a second!"

Another recent event was the precursor to my podcast series too. I happened to start listening to 80s House and Techno music one day recently. This was music made with hardware synthesizers and drum machines. It was made with hardware only... because there was no software at this time. It had not yet been invented. It would have been recorded to tape as well. All a very physical, analog process. I was struck in that moment by just how full and rich it sounded. I thought to myself that my ears had become used to thinner things with less presence, the result of software and computers coming to pre-eminence. I thought to myself that there may be people who think that software synths and computer sound are normal. I pitied them for not knowing how things sounded "in the old days" because, believe me, it was like night and day how the 80s stuff sounded compared to modern EDM which, to my ears, is weak and sugary. Back then things were dirty and gritty and full of saturated presence. Swedish House Mafia or Avicii do not hold a candle to Frankie Knuckles or Kevin Saunderson in terms of how they sound.

There's another story I can tell. This week has been the music technology trade show in Frankfurt, Musikmesse. This is where manufacturers come together to show their new wares. One of these is a new software which emulates Eurorack modular synth modules. I posted the news story about this new software to a Facebook page for Eurorack users and the response was largely predictable. Lots of people who use real Eurorack synth modules pointed out that doing this in software is actually missing the point of modular synthesis in the first place

                     A Eurorack format synthesizer

But what is the point of modular synthesis in the first place? The point is its tactile nature. The complaint was that by making it just another software you maybe replicate how it looks on your screen and maybe even model quite accurately how it sounds with your computer. But you don't emulate the process of using it because one is a hardware instrument and the other is a program on a computer. Someone jokingly said they would need to create a hands-on controller for this new software.... *chuckle*

A lot has been happening to me musically in recent weeks. Another thing that is new is an interest in exploring noise music, a particular flavor of electronic music which is harsh and without compromise. I'm totally clear that it won't be to everyone's taste but there is a community that seems fascinated by it and that interests me. Of course, there is good and bad in all forms of music and this is no less the case here. Its a matter of taking time and stopping to smell the roses to find out which interests you and which doesn't. As one who has an interest in all forms of electronic sound this seems one well worth studying for a while at least and you can be sure it will be featured in my podcast series. This is not least because noise, in the form of industrial music, has penetrated far enough into musical culture in general to have even reached the mainstream and, at this point, it becomes a significant socio-cultural phenomenon in its own right. As I see it, noise shares in something that has been a feature of electronic music from the start, the ability to throw away the script, go off piste and just chart your own course. When you have instruments, from the cheapest, crappiest, circuit bent piece of crap to expertly manufactured super synths costing thousands of your local currency to play with then the sky (or space) is literally the limit. Noise musicians, as with ambient and kosmische musicians, are some of those who have taken this ability and run wild with it.

This is just one reason why I probably like electronic music above all other forms. It has the ability to create new timbres and textures and to keep doing it. You can create something that is yours that nobody else has. Of course, you can also use the presets and create something that other people do have. But that's up to you. I see electronic music as forming a broad spectrum of sounds, potentially as broad as human beings can imagine in fact. With electronic instruments you cannot just create songs or melodies but entirely new sounds themselves. You can create the actual building blocks. The very early pioneers did exactly this with tape machines using noises manipulated to make other noises and then combining them to make longer artistic pieces. Fascination with sound, I think, is at the heart of electronic music and this is what the Electronic Oddities Podcast, I hope, will be all about. In all the many and varied ways that people can now make electronic music, in ever greater numbers, the scope and variety of the possibilities is, perhaps, the most attractive feature of all.

Episode one of the Electronic Oddities Podcast is now available  HERE!