Thursday, 17 November 2016

Electronic Music Philosophy

My blog today arises from one particularly long and impassioned response to my last one which was about gear fetishization in electronic music. There were quite a number of responses to that blog (which has become my most read blog) both on this site and in the Facebook groups where I posted it and a good discussion was generated. However, some people did seem to be coming at what I had written in that blog from fairly traditional and unreflective positions, as I judged it, and this lead to me seeing that in some people's responses quite a lot was assumed that shouldn't have been and quite a lot of things were equated with one another that shouldn't have been either.

           Morton Subotnick with a Buchla 200e system and a Livid controller

Now I am very, very aware that electronic music is a wide subject. It is delineated, in many ways, by what were the two stand out pieces of electronic music commercially at the beginning of this commercial electronic music era back in the mid to late 60s. Those pieces were Switched On Bach by Wendy Carlos and Silver Apples Of The Moon by Morton Subotnick. With these two records, which are completely different in musical style and intention even though they are both electronic, we see instantiated a kind of broad choice regarding how electronic music is going to be. And each choice comes with a whole philosophy of music attached and a direction of travel laid out in front of it. Wendy Carlos was playing traditional music on her Moog synthesizer in Switched On Bach and Subotnick was playing what he thought of as new music on his Buchla 100. Carlos's music followed traditional ideas of music and attempted to transform it by means of the synthesizer. Subotnick was simply trying to do something new.

Switched On Bach and Silver Apples Of The Moon
Even the covers of the albums seem to project different motives and ideals.

It is important to say that there will be no talk here of either direction being wrong in this discussion. Although I am very happy to pick my own side in this binary choice, that does not mean I think the other has no merit. In what follows I hope to explain why I personally feel the way I do. Hopefully both those reading this who agree and disagree with me can explain themselves too. For this is an on-going conversation here and not one that can be settled by a simple choice once for all time. Music is a subject in which you can be influenced by diverse and contradictory sources and, for example, one could learn plenty simply by listening to both Subotnick and Carlos rather than one or the other. The same is true when reading the arguments of those on both sides of this debate. For example, I was lead into much thought about this subject when reading what I thought were the mistaken comments of the person who replied to my last blog, the one that motivates this one. We likely start and finish in different places. But this doesn't mean we can't get insights from each other. Such is the spirit in which I discuss this matter.

The heart of my argument here is that the whole of someone's understanding about electronic music is directly influenced and originated by their electronic music philosophy. I see this as a "top down" process. What you think about the big things (like what is good, inventive or interesting - and why you do) will direct your practice and how you carry on with the smaller things which fit into the whole. We can perhaps see this in the examples of Carlos and Subotnick I have already given if you know the albums I referred to or something about their consequent careers. (If you don't know I suggest that researching this would be of great interest and benefit to you.)  One thing this means is that I don't think there is any one philosophy or guiding idea which is applicable to all forms of electronic music or all reasons to make it. This, I hope, should be fairly widely accepted. It is a completely different thing to play concertos on a Moog modular rig than it is to make harsh noise with electronic boxes and FX pedals on a table in a warehouse. And it takes a different philosophy, with its consequent beliefs, motives, goals and knowledge, to do either. There is no one way to do things or one motive to do them. The ways are as many as can be imagined and the motives are as many as there are people.

I state this first because that was the main thing that my respondent, I think, didn't see. He came to my post with his own ideas and ways of doing things, things that had been blessed by probably years of his practice as well as the blessing of those he had learnt from and, for him, that was enough. I understand that. The problem is, it wasn't enough, not for a broad understanding of all the possible forms of electronic music practice. For "electronic music" is a wide name that covers a lot of diverse things. And this is the problem. If you try to think about those two albums by Carlos and Subotnick again how do you begin to describe them whilst keeping them under one roof? They both are using synthesizers to be sure but even their equipment was designed based on opposing philosophies. They were using instruments meant to be functional in different ways and these ways delimited, shaped and directed the musical possibilities. Skill on the musical keyboard, such as Wendy Carlos has, would be of great help on the Moog. It is useless on the Buchla 100 because there is no keyboard to play! And what good would knowledge of either be if presented with Ableton Live and a Push controller or some turntables and a drum machine or some drone synths that had no labels on the knobs or a collection of touch devices? All of these types of equipment enable "electronic music" to be made as do circuit bent children's toys, theremins and any other number of electronic things.

But let's get into it before this blog becomes a long ramble instead of the tightly focused argument I hope it to be. I intend to argue against the position that my respondent took up yesterday and so I need to lay out concisely where I saw him as coming from. This position, which was meant to be applied to the whole of electronic music, anything that could be so described, was delineated in the following way:

Quality of output was linked to "musical ability" or "skill".

Technical ability or learning or training were assumed to be superior to random play, pure experimentation or happy accidents.

"Electronic music" was assumed to be a new form of sound as opposed to a new way of doing music.

Intention was prioritized over accident.

"Being good at music" was equated with knowing certain canonized things, having validated skills and having been trained in professionalized ways.

Now I appreciate there is some overlap between the five things I've noted there. They are my summation of the philosophy I was seeing at work in one response that was given to my last blog. It is a philosophy I come across quite often from electronic musicians who I regard as people wanting to do what Morton Subotnick labels "new old music". This is music which relies on the traditional ideas of music going back centuries within western music. These ideas are as basic as that music should rely on melody and harmony to be musically desirable as well as all the technical knowledge of chords and scales, for example. The essential description of this music is music that is traditional except in that it is now made with electronic devices. There is nothing wrong with this music. It is the dominant form of electronic music and certainly the one we are all most used to. But, and this is my point, it is ONLY ONE WAY to think about electronic music at all. Subotnick and many others since have demonstrated that time and time again. 

So let's kick off with the first point, that musical quality is linked to musical ability or skill. The first point to note in response here is that dependent on your form of electronic music and your tools then what skill or ability is required is wildly different. I don't see how knowledge of musical scales or keyboard chops are relevant to someone who is a noise artist or a turntablist, for example. There are plenty of examples of those who make minimalistic, beat-driven electronic music who have no musical training of any kind and so have not been educated in traditionally understood musical ways and yet they seem to have an instinct for creating rhythms and grooves which can make packed rooms jive. Is this based in their skill or ability? Is the quality of their work directly related to how much of this they have? I don't think so at all. At best we might say they have a feel or an instinct for what works musically. (PS none of this is meant to suggest that any form of electronic music cannot be done better or worse. It is to question whether this must be because of skill or ability in a direct way.)

Next we come upon a common assumption, that ability, learning and training are superior to play, experimentation (in the pure sense of not knowing what you are doing until something happens) and accidents. This I simply refer to as a base prejudice for one over the other, the expression of the dominant electronic music philosophy active in the person concerned. It is to choose one approach and designate it better AND NOTHING MORE THAN THAT. Again, there are lots of examples of relatively untalented musicians with no training that have undertaken no formal learning but yet who make music that packs stadiums or dancehalls. This particular point almost seems to veer into snobbishness, it seems to me. When you hear a piece of music you have no idea what the musical background of the creator is. You don't know if they know any musical theory at all or if they have been trained to the highest classification possible. But you must surely admit that if you hear some piece of music you like then all these things are in that moment irrelevant. We can codify this fact by noting that there is no such algorithm operative in electronic music as "more skill = better music". Its simply untrue. More skill equals more skillful music. But more skillful music is not necessary better. 

And so we come to a discussion of electronic music itself and what it is at its heart. This part of anyone's electronic music philosophy is very important for it will, in large part, direct where you want to go with it. Those who think that electronic music is merely normal music but made with synthesizers and electronic music devices will make music as traditionally understood and have a bias towards that as what they see as "valid electronic music". This is because for them music hasn't changed just the devices for making it and the sounds that can be made have. But there's another way. This is the way which sees that electronic music is not old music done with new things but THE POSSIBILITY FOR A NEW MUSIC. This is the direction Subotnick has taken. It is the direction Buchla took when designing his synthesizers. It is the direction noise artists in Japan have taken. It the direction the first Kosmische artists took in Germany when they made space rock or abstract, atonal sound washes. This is not old music made with new things. Its new forms of music. So when making electronic music asking yourself what you think you are doing is a vital question to answer for yourself.

Affenstunde by Popol Vuh from 1970. This is an example of the new Kosmische music that began to appear in Germany in the late 60s and early 70s. It includes one of the first European uses of the Moog synthesizer and one of its first recorded uses for original music.

Part of the traditional paradigm of music is the idea that music is something intentionally done by a creator who purposefully and with a plan creates his or her masterpiece. This has in many places been thought to be the definition of what "valid music" is. But is it? One among many things that electronics have given musicians the ability to achieve now is randomization. Randomization is musically desirable because it breaks things up and can disrupt something that feels too machine-like or regular. It can add what is sometimes called "human feel" because human beings, unlike machines, cannot be clocked. Indeed, if we measure humans making music to the limits of our ability we see that human rhythm is not straight. Its off, it varies. We are not machines, right? We see a similar thing in oscillators. People complain about the machine-like digital oscillators which are measured and perfect and favour the analog ones which are prey to physical variation and imperfection. They say they sound "warmer". People like Dave Smith put digital oscillators in their synths because the precision is useful to the synth builder. But they then give the user the ability to dial that precision out for reasons of musical taste (oscillator slop).

But let's bring this back to intentionality. Put simply, this, yet again, is only one way to see music rather than the only game in town and it is electronics which have changed the game and required the reorientation of the participants. We see with the burgeoning interest in modular synthesis, for instance, the possibility for pieces of music that are more conducted than played, more steered than precise expressions of a human intention. This is even the attraction of this kind of electronic music, that even the nominal creator of the piece does not know exactly how it will turn out. This not knowing is the desired and appealing feature of the performance. This is not music that could be notated or even repeated and it absolutely is not following the old "intentionality" paradigm. If anything, it has slid into a co-operative paradigm but one in which machines and devices co-operate with human beings to produce something electronically musical. A similar thing happens in DJ booths where "on the fly" performances occur mixing diverse sources to unpredictable outcomes. Is this "musically invalid"? I say a definite "NO!"

The attitude that I am really arguing against here is a professionalized one. Some people are professional musicians and so must abide by professional standards to survive. I get that. Others wish to imitate them and so preach these same standards since they are the ones they hope will enable them to follow in the footsteps of their heroes. I get that too. But neither of these groups have the right or the ability to thereby delineate what the whole of electronic music should or should not be. Professional bodies are inherently and necessarily conservative. This, after all, is how they police their own standards. The problem is that electronic music is new and creates new, non-professionalized forms, ones that may require different standards or even, clutches pearls, very few standards at all. Of course a professionalized musical tradition will rub up against such ideas and take a different point of view. But we should be able to decipher this and see why. 

Some of the values this new and scary electronic music promotes are ideas such as that self-taught is as valid as traditionally taught, that electronic music is new music and not just new sounds for old music, that an accident caused by some oscillators or some valves or transistors is as valid as me deciding that a C chord should be followed by a G and then an F. Electronic music as a whole allows if not invites the notion that intention and accident or intention and experiment are equally as pregnant with musical possibility as each other. Electronic music enshrines and explicitly enables the notion that a programmer can make music as beautiful, powerful or emotional as a player. Electronics in music takes the old paradigm of music based on knowledge, learning and training and acknowledges that much great music has been and will be made this way but that now, because of electricity, it can all be one big playful experiment instead and that things just as valid, musical and enjoyable are created as  a result.

                     Some anonymous Russian electronic noise artists

There are people who will sniff at this. They sometimes reply to my blogs and insist that although they can see my point it still might be a good idea to get some training or learn some musical knowledge. It might be. But it is not a necessity. You will have a great, thrilling and fulfilling electronic musical life even if you never do that. Or, rather, it is possible. I see those who respond to me in this way as giving voice to where they have come from. That's fair enough. But I must gently remind them that things have changed now in the world of electronic machines. The electronic music world has brought in a lot of non-traditional people who nevertheless have musical impulses and desires and the electronic devices of today allow them to be expressed. This won't be in old ways and, as I hope I have shown, neither should it be necessarily. 

Quality is not necessarily linked to skill or ability.

Ability, learning and training are not necessarily superior to play, experimentation and accidents.

Music with electronics is new music not just new sounds.

Intention and accident are of equal validity.

Being good at music can be as much about instinct as training.

Perhaps, in one last point, I might say that perhaps the most important thing that music made with electronics liberates is the possibility of play. In his response to me my respondent referred disparagingly to "goofing around". I thought that he got this dead wrong. As he referred to it, goofing around was seen as somehow not serious in a world of electronic music which he clearly regarded as a very serious thing indeed. It seemed beyond question to him that "proper" electronic music wasn't something you messed about with. Sorry, my friend, I think you're dead wrong again. Another thing that electronics enables is the ability to goof around, save it and play around with it. Indeed, looping, which is really only goofing around to a purpose, it an actual genre of music as well as a way many electronic musicians build their pieces. Wasn't playing with magnetic tape in former times or building mixtapes, the way a lot of people got into making electronic music in the 80s, for example, really just glorified "goofing around"? And should electronic music be so serious anyway? I know that Bandcamp is full of a million very serious electronic albums made using a "space" theme. One loses count of the electronic albums there named after planets, galaxies and the like or scientific processes. But I say there should be MORE goofing around and not just because it is fun. Its also valid and musically useful too.

Well, that's my latest. I hope you find in it food for thought. Happy electronic music making to all!

If you like articles like this one and have access to Facebook you may like to join the group Electronic Music Philosophy which I curate where I hope we may be able to discuss this music we all love and how it gets made a little more expansively for the benefit of us all. Please feel free to join by clicking the link.

PS Please note that although I often use binary choices in my blogs I am aware things are a lot more nuanced than this. Please read for tone as well as for detail!


  1. Your insightful blogs would be MUCH easier to read on a tiny phone if you would break it down into much smaller paragraphs. All I ask is that you consider this.

    1. Understood but I write on a computer.

    2. Computers have a limit on paragraphs?

    3. Let me put it another way then. I've been writing in blogs and other more serious places for maybe 25 years. Over that time a style has developed. Its not to everyone's taste. That said, the blog you are replying to has been my most popular blog by some considerable margin. Now it could be that I am losing lots of readers who are trying to read it on a tiny phone screen and being put off by the paragraphs on a small screen. So what should I do? Change my writing style to accommodate people reading my blog on what some might call an inappropriate reading device or should I hope that such people find what I have to say interesting and they find a way to read it somewhere else? That said, I did consider your point and in the blog I published a few hours ago I think an analysis would show that my paragraphs there are, on average, shorter. Perhaps they are not mobile phone short but then everyone has to compromise at some point in most things.

  2. what you're talking about could be abstracted to all aspects of life in general... should one seek to emulate a standard that has been painstakingly developed by the collective of humanity over our entire history, or is it better to break that mold? The answer lies almost certainly and exclusively in the middle. The best ideas and art ALWAYS breaks the mold in some way, I have noticed. But purely random activity, outside of context is seldom of any value whatsoever. Remember, if you are using a buchla, you're still adapting the type of machine that Don painstakingly created to be conducive to the kind of music he envisioned (and in this, even he incorporated aspects of western harmony, and, especially, the science of what a sound wave even is). So making great music, I believe, DOES, in some way, at least benefit from knowledge of what's been discovered to work in music. And to be good at it, one must also develop one's intuition on preferences regarding combinations of sound. That said, I'm sure there are pieces of great music made in a completely haphazard way, by a person that knew absolutely nothing about what they were doing. Nor cared. This, actually, is an expression of a certain fundamental truth in the value of freedom as expressed in the music, art, thought, etc. And, it goes without saying, there is an infinite store of great music meant only to repeat something great that has already been done. Yet, the value in these repeated performances does, in a large part rely on what we could call interpretation: the random and personal HUMAN element in a performance. And like I said, this is really an idea that can be applied to life in general. And it's sad that our society has unequivocally tended toward favoring that latter in too many areas of human activity, most notably in the workplace. But we could chalk that up to simply caution and laziness. I prefer play, experimentation, the raw experience, in short determination in the last instance over what amounts to a script (however advanced and beautifully evolved it may be); and, because of its contrast to the more strictly representational forms of being we are constantly being engulfed in, I see it as one of the most defining qualities of GOOD art. But for someone doing this, the pool of current human understanding is there for a reason.

    1. "The pool of current human understanding" is there because what else could it be? This tells you nothing about what to do with it.

  3. Personally, I think you have a strange understanding of 'professionalized' as you seem to equate that with music that puts a focus on traditional styles of music. Surely being 'professional' equates to learning ones art - such as Morton Subotnick has done over the years. I have seen terrible electronic music gigs performed by 'trained' musician/composers but I have also seen bad modular gigs performed by people who need to develop their musical abilities. Likewise, I have seen very good elctronic music gigs by people who have a deep understanding of sound design and their gear who have produced wonderful sets that don't rely on traditional music knowledge. My point is, if you work learning how to use your gear, you stand a better chance in creating tracks that work as a structure and keep the listeners interested.