Friday, 16 September 2016

Music and Genre

Generally speaking, I am not a fan of genres in music. This is a silly statement. For I can say that I like ska music, the acid sound, EBM, kosmische music, sound art, and some other things and these are all genres of music. Genres are musical sub-cultures that share some recognizable features, helpful ways to group certain sounds together and hopefully in a descriptively useful way that cuts some ice and actually helps the users of the term to know what is being talked about. The problem, however, is that often this isn't the case at all and especially if you haven't experienced a musical genre from the inside. Another problem is that genres can become more narrowly and narrowly defined. What, for example, is Aggrotech and how is it different from EBM or electro-industrial? I admit to being completely at a loss. I recently read a comment talking about "Black Ambient". I have no idea what that is or how it might be different from "Dark Ambient" which is another genre label I have come across. I admit that I ask myself if any perceived difference matters. What use is a term that doesn't have wide currency anyway? Using it doesn't help because in order to understand its meaning you'd need to experience the difference yourself.

So there is an issue with increasingly narrow sub-genres. These operate more as identifiers for insiders than instantly recognizable labels for the masses. Such labels aren't always welcome either. Some musicians don't want to be nailed down to one label or genre. Recently I put up a podcast in my Electronic Oddities series formed around Electroclash music. When I do a genre show I always try to formulate in my head a compact description of what I think this genre is trying to encapsulate. I included Ladytron in that podcast even though Ladytron have, in the past, refused the Electroclash tag. But I noticed that some others regarded their sound as fitting within the genre and so I included them. The song I picked doesn't sound out of place so maybe it was a good decision. But I can understand Ladytron's point.

Of course, for some people identifying with a particular genre might be important to them. These people set out to fit in with a genre and its important to them they are recognized as this sound. One example here is Noise Music, especially Harsh Noise. This is just a noise wall with barely any variation between tracks or bands. But it is a distinctive and definable sound and some simply want to join in making it. Another example might be EDM. EDM is a very produced (some would say over produced) and polished form of dance music made with a computer. It has a recognizable sound that separates it out from rawer forms of dance music. EDM is very popular and lots of music makers who already have computers are very keen to make it. They all sound the same so its not hard to miss. But this is where my problem with genre starts to raise its head.

My problem with genre is that it is limiting. As a musician I would hate to think people can use one word to describe what it is I do. I'd regard it as an insult and myself as a failure if that was the case. I guess my own self-image is that, musically, I have more strings to my bow than just sounding one way. Now some people want to sound one way. That's up to them. I'd regard it as not overly interesting though as once you've heard a song or two what more is there really to listen to? You've heard what this person or people do and you aren't going to get anymore variety than that. This is a silly statement too. There are plenty of acts I've heard and liked in my life who really only sound one way and I have no problem with them at all. If you like a certain sound then you like it. But I'm trying to get at something more than this. There are also experimental groups that I like. These have more of an unpredictability about them and I like them for that fact. These groups avoid categorization, which is what putting musicians in genres really is, and I like that idea. I don't want to be categorized myself. "Experimental" is a good tag for this and some people use the term as a genre term too. But "experimental" tells you next to nothing about what someone is going to sound like. 

Recently I came across another genre discussion that revolved around "the modular sound". This, so it is assumed, is the sound made by modular synthesizers. This discussion was started off by the famous modular synth user, Richard Devine, when he commented in one of the first teaser videos for the new Behringer Deepmind 12 synth that it sounded "very modular". Hannes Pasqualini wrote an excellent piece about this comment and if "the modular sound" even exists and you can read that HERE! and you should read it for its an interesting discussion of if this sound even exists and, if so, what it is. In the article Devine himself was very clear that he thinks there is such a sound, its a sound that is "organic and changing constantly". I know exactly what he means by this. I myself would probably have mentioned a sound that involved constantly changing modulations, a sense of movement and a feeling of being a musical organism, you can hear all the parts working in their place but it somehow all feels as if it is a unified whole. I note, however, that in the Facebook discussion where I found reference to Pasqualini's article there were a few people quite adamant that there was no such thing as "the modular sound". They emphasized the possibilities of the machine and argued this meant there was no such sound. But if when I mentioned "the modular sound" ideas of what that might be came into your head then maybe the phrase denotes something after all. (I note that much "modular music" one may hear is brief jams that people make for videos they put online. This phenomenon itself contributes to a modular sound in that it is so-called "noodling".)

Of course, I turn all these genre discussions back upon myself for, like many musicians, I want to be able to describe what it is I do. In this connection "the modular sound" is interesting to me not least because, over the years, sometimes people have said to me that some of my music sounds very "modular" or "analog" (not the same thing of course!) when the truth has usually been that the songs they were hearing were made entirely in software. I often do set out to try and ape a certain sound though (or I just find one that reminds me of something) and so the comments that I got, quite innocently and honestly, confirmed in me some measure of success and that, yes, there are people out there who associate certain sounds with certain equipment. I often deliberately muddy these waters too because I've often lied to people who have asked me what I used to make something. This, please understand, was not from any malicious intent. It was more mischievous in that I have noticed people make judgments based on what they think you have used. I merely wanted to disrupt these, to me, invalid judgments and make the listener return once more to the sound they are hearing. Musicians, especially of the electronic variety, can be very snobbish or judgmental about equipment and I simply wish to not play that game. Comment on what you hear not what was used to make it when listening to music is the focus!

Now I think there's ample reason to say that my music is not one thing. I might sometimes call it "experimental" but this is a relative term. Experimental to who exactly? One person's experiment is another's "I've heard this before". I think what I'd actually like to be is a genre of one: "music that sounds like me". No one else can sound like me if I allow my personality to shine through what I do for no one else is me. This is my technique and I try to make music containing that spark of uniqueness, that brings that little bit of me to the fore. This, of course, will not tell you what I sound like. But, as I've tried to explain, part of me is resistant to genre labels in the first place. You get to know what I sound like by listening to me. And this is surely the point of music anyway. If it can be explained away by a genre label it removes the need to listen to it. So I try not to fit in with genre and I try to be varied so that what I do cannot be crammed into the same musical box. That said, my music has taken a turn this year in what, to date, doesn't seem like such a vintage year to me. My music often reflects the world I see around me and is, in some sense, an expression of this. Yesterday I lay trying to come up with words to describe it. I got

1. Noisy
2. Abstract
3. Atonal
4. Bricolage

Now this isn't a genre and that's good. In practice a lot of my output this year, which has increasingly used random sounds I have found online (a notable change in content from former years), has been unpleasant noise, messy and sterile. These are aesthetic judgments by me, its maker. But it has served a purpose for I have seen the world destroying itself, chaos rising and things politically, socially and culturally making less and less sense. Would not noisy, abstract, atonal bricolage be the music for a world that was like this? It seems that I have thought so. Of course, I have to be the kind of musician I am for this to be so. Some musicians, it seems, start off with an idea in their head. They then try to recreate this idea in sound. But I am not like that. I never start with an idea. Instead, I start with a musical situation. This compromises instruments, sounds and, primarily, thoughts and feelings about non-musical subjects. In effect, before I begin I collect a pool of things that I am going to use. The way I make music is then to filter the instruments and sounds through the thoughts and feelings. My music, however abstract, is always about some idea or feeling and success is articulating that in sound. So I regard my genre as sounding like me for my music is what I think and feel in sound.

I find this way of doing things much more authentic than following some genre. But there will be others who want to do exactly that and that is their choice. As I've already intimated, my thoughts on genre aren't consistent anyway - and nor need they be. There are good and bad things about genre and we aren't required to have merely one thought about the subject. What is much more important is finding your own way and finding a sound that you truly identify with (from a musician's point of view). 

The Electronic Oddities Podcast, which often features differing musical genres, can be found at 

My music, whatever it might be made with (and I'm not telling!), can be found at 

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