Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Electronic Music Theory and Gear Fetishization

It is good, I think, when you come across electronic musicians who are thinking about what they do. And this seems quite common because electronic music, for one reason and another, seems to attract quite cerebral people. But this is not to suggest that all electronic musicians do this nor that all thoughts are equal. This morning I was reading the website of one electronic musician who posts regularly on Facebook and I couldn't believe what I was reading. He is clearly a person who thinks about what he does but the results of this thinking seemed to be lots of rules about how to go about making electronic music as if there were a right or wrong way to do it. The vision of this person was based on technical skill and proficiency, another choice he had made rather than an unavoidable necessity. The whole philosophy of this person seemed to be very outward looking, as if the job of an electronic musician was to impress anybody who might be looking with what, for want of a better word, might strike someone else as a "professional" image. 

The 0-Coast Synthesizer by Make Noise

This all annoyed the hell out of me. The professional guild of musicians have been trying to hoodwink people for years into thinking that unless you could play your instrument properly or you had this skill or that skill or knew this arcane art that only they could teach you or unless you had the right gear which was truly "pro" then, somehow, what you were doing was invalid, pointless and even laughable. These were the kind of people who, when synthesizers started invading popular music, tried to get electronic music makers banned because they could seemingly do with one finger what they had taken years to learn with their professional notions of what music was about. Electronic music, as popularly conceived, became something which re-wrote the book on what "making proper music" was all about. And it didn't involve music teachers, professional notions of what music even was or even necessarily any playing skill. If I can program a 303 and an 808 I can make music that keeps a club moving all night in this new paradigm. You have to realize that this fact annoys the hell out of some people. So imagine what fiddling with knobs and plugging patch cables here and there does to them! And what comes out of the audio out might not even be a melody!

Now even if a fair number of electronic music makers today don't buy into such professional and misleading notions, perhaps because they have a "punk" ethos that you take what gear you can get and then make the best of it, there are still plenty who do buy into one aspect: gear fetishization. In fact, the Facebook group you probably saw this post advertised in is likely full of people discussing gear, stuff, instruments, look what I've got, isn't that expensive synthesizer great, etc. You get the idea. Other well known forums online, such as Gearslutz or Muffwigglers, are equally places where most often gear is discussed. I find this a bit strange and this is not because it is discussed at all but because it takes up so much space. The cherry on the cake of this sort of thing is the "show your setup" thread that such places always have. What for? It seems quite clear to me that whatever motivates such threads, or taking part in them, it is not a musical impulse. This is something else not to do with music. Maybe its a bit like someone showing you a fantastic sports car. Looks nice but you have no idea if they can even drive it. What's my point in mentioning all this? My point is that electronic music is about music and everything else surrounding musical output, which is the creating and arranging of sounds, is peripheral to that.

Of course, if people want to start "look at my setup" groups, clubs, websites or pages then that's completely up to them. For myself, I'm totally clear that I'm more focused of what comes out of electronic music equipment than what it looks like in your home studio or how much of it hundreds of anonymous Internet people have. From comments and conversations I sometimes have I think a few others are with me too. These people, perhaps people like me, wonder why so much space is given over to stuff and rather less is given over to what you might do with it - which is surely the point of having it at all in the first place? Part of the problem here is the electronic music press and media. A lot of those who write about electronic music write about things rather than ideas. You get puff pieces on what such and such an anonymous maker of trance music in Berlin has as opposed to a discussion of his musical ideas. This is not always true but it seems to be the prevailing direction of travel. Perhaps it is not then so surprising that we consumers and music makers go the same way. But it seems to me that this is arse about face. The fact you can show me your huge modular setup up or your Rick Wakeman style 28 keyboard rig tells me nothing about what you can do with it or how you go about utilizing the huge resources at your command. And, frankly, that is much more interesting than knowing you are rich and can afford a lot of stuff.

This is because I think electronic music, par excellence, is a music of ideas. Or, at least, it should be. And so when I routinely see people complaining about "fart noises" (and you could find such comments every day if you looked) I think that what they are complaining about is a lack of imagination, a void of ideas. Anyone who begins to build a modular synthesizer or buys something like the 0-Coast there is a picture of above can make the "fart noise" very easily and really without trying. This requires no effort or skill. This, I think, is what people complain about. If you think about the history of electronic music in what we might call its commercial period which is now almost exactly 50 years then what we see is a history of ideas with electronics. And that period extends back further with the various radiophonic experiments that took place in various labs in Europe and America even before that. These experiments took place on huge lab equipment largely adapted from radio studio gear. Those working there, people like Pierre Schaeffer in France who invented the Phonogene, were trying to put this equipment to new uses to author sound. What they were doing wasn't strictly conventional and they were coming up with new and controversial ways to do old things but also new things as well. Electronic musicians today with an 0-Coast or a modular or an electronic device of most kinds have the same opportunity that they did. 

This opportunity is not based so much in stuff. Indeed, if I may be so bold, does it REALLY even matter what you have got? You may be one of those who looks down on the guy (or girl!) with their 3 or 4 Volcas (or a Rhythm Wolf!) because you have one of every expensive synthesizer there is. (I assume this is what the "look at my big rig" pics are for?) So what? Its what you do with it that counts. And here's the thing about music: you may make a fantastic piece of electronic sound every time you switch your synths on BUT you'll never be the only one. Jean-Michel Jarre seems like a guy who has one of everything. He has made some of the best electronic music ever as my ears hear it but he has also made some limp dross. In terms of equipment I doubt there is a person on the planet who has had access to more of it than him. He has used (and owned) everything from the huge and rare Arp 2500 to the Fairlight CMI to the new Roland System 8 which seems to be his main keyboard on his current tour. But this doesn't guarantee that his next album (which incidentally is Oxygene 3) will be something you like or want to hear or that it will be musically innovative or interesting. Electronic music is a musician plus electronic equipment (whatever that is) plus IDEAS. And the ideas aren't the least of those things. 

                       Jean-Michel Jarre on his current Electronica Tour

What does this mean for electronic music? It means you should stop worrying about what you've got or not got and starting thinking about how to use it. The most distinctive thing about any electronic music will always be how it sounds. This isn't merely a matter of tone. People can do great things with a Minimoog, for example, but I assure you its just as easy to make rubbish with one too. The same applies to any musical tool whether analog, digital, hardware or software, modular or fixed architecture. No tool yet invented guarantees original, innovative or creative electronic music. This is because that is the bit that you, the user, supplies. So it would be a bit pointless, should you be lucky enough to be rich, to build a mega studio full of every synth desired if it turned out that you didn't have a single interesting musical idea in your head. Such people do exist. They probably spend their time showing off their kit, racking up likes and follows from people led astray by a room full of gear and thinking that that is the goal. Its not wrong to have nice things. But its not really the point either, is it? Synth museums are not places of exciting musical creativity.

But back to the person with whom I started, the man whose website listed all the rules he thought he needed to follow in order to feel professional about what he was doing.  It was all very interesting. But its a million miles away from any understanding of musical expression that I have. And, to be clear, I think that for many people, if not most making electronic music, expression is what it is about. This man also seemed to think that musical proficiency was the basis for taking part as well, how well you could play something. But how does that apply to a music that is primarily about the creation of sounds as is the case with electronics? It occurred to me as I was reading that I have personally eliminated the need for the vast majority of these rules simply by regarding music as a matter of personal expression rather than technical ability. What's more, if you take the view that any musical piece or performance is nothing more than yet another experiment, as many experimental musicians might want you to, then you don't have to worry about artificial notions of how good or bad it was either. These, I find, are stupid terms when assessing music you make in any case.  All rules seem to do is heap personal pressure on the music-maker. And I just don't see why anyone would want to do that. If I were to make any rules there would be just one: don't worry about what you do or how you do it: any sounds you make are perfectly valid and equally worthy. Electronic music is experimentalism pure and simple: there is no right or wrong.

What more of a framework do we need than this? We certainly should not impose the standards of commerciality upon our creativity (unless that is what we are doing and I concede that those for whom making music is their business have to do this). Electronic music has always been a pioneering form of music, a form of music which is about originality, experimentalism and ideas. Since the first music with commercial synthesizers was made in the mid to late 60s numerous whole new genres of music and sounds have been created and become the soundtracks to numerous people's lives.  This is the very heart of what electronic music is about. This is why in previous blogs I've written about the exciting possibilities of machines. A lot of this is to do with the so-called "happy accidents" and the possibility that something electronic may just spit out some sound or phrase which inspires you in a direction that you, as a player, may never have thought of. I personally have 100's of examples of this from my own time making electronic music and you probably do too. Electronic music is not just about playing a tune either. Electronic music is how you build sounds up and weave them together, yes, but its also about creating the sounds themselves. This is what synthesis is! Indeed, much electronic music is just electronic sound and whole genres (such as Japanoise, for example) are based on making a certain sound.

                                Japanese Noise Artist, Merzbow

So I'm very much all in favour of an experimental, non-professional approach to the creation of electronic music, music that becomes an expression of the human through machines. I think it helps to have some idea about what you think you are doing when turning on a synthesizer too. I don't mean in terms of how to use it (much good music has been made by people who had no clue how to use the device in front of them just as it has with the most proficient user of all) but in terms of a philosophy of ideas. I personally find the most joy and excitement in electronic music which is interesting and this is different from simply "good" or "bad", subjective terms which are functionally useless when judging music I think. What I want to hear when I listen is some clue that the music maker was trying to do something specific or get somewhere in particular or musically describe or inhabit some space. If I can see they are doing that then it helps me to appreciate what is going on. In comparison, a simple like or dislike is pretty meaningless. I think what informs this thinking in me is the idea that with electronic music you can go places. You can make new things and you have a blank canvas to do it on. Electronic music can go wherever you want to take it. It can describe the future, as it often does in sci-fi soundtracks, or create whole ideas from nothing. 

Electronic music is as big, or as small, as YOUR imagination. So imagine. Dream crazy dreams!


  1. Thank you!
    I have posted new music on FB pages before and then had a message from admin saying "it's a rule on here that you have to show what you used..."
    It's a weird response.
    A couple of times I have gone along with it and posted a picture. I don't know, it just seems odd.
    I get people are very into equipment and like to see/share set-ups, but I hope it has to nothing to do with whether you like the sound of something, or not.

    1. Yes I've seen that group too. What I find interesting is if I post a blog like this (hopefully) hundreds if not a few thousand may read it. If I post music then nothing. Its as if people prefer talking about things to sounds when the sounds are the point of it all (for most people).

    2. Some good points, but as an electronic musician myself I am more inclined to listen to new music if I can see it being played live on YouTube in a way that I can understand what the musician is using. I appreciate that a non musician couldn't (and shouldn't) care less about it). But then again I am interested in the science as much as the creative.

      Some musicians are focussed on the creative, the resultant music is king. This is fine. Some musicians (like myself) are as much interested in the science, how sounds are made, how certain gear works etc meaning that I am (almost) as happy thinking about gear and engaging in discussion as I am about creating. This is also fine.

      Floating my boat on both counts is the real challenge!

  2. Thank you! GReat article. Good thoughts (interesting, constructive, partly even clearing things up). I haven´t got the time to answer more detailed - I´ve to go dreaming.... :-)
    Have a great day and a good time!

  3. I liked reading this article. Gear fetishism is easy to fall into if one doesn't check themself. How about posting a link to listen to some of your music. I like your thoughts on musical process, it would be great to hear the process in play.

  4. Replies
    1. well, to try to add something to the matter... I think the problem is mainly that, to admire someone else's gear, you just need to open your eyes (and say "good synths bru"). but, to admire his/her music, you have to open your mind/heart, and that needs a lot more of commitment. like, engage in a feeling with a stranger (over the www) and, in that, expose yourself. "hey, I enjoy your vision and I relate to your feelings" is a much more committed thing to say and I guess not everyone is up to that... people are usually a bit afraid of exposing themselves. but, nevertheless, I think it's essential we, as artists, do... or at least I feel that exposing myself constantly is an essential part of the job and that I shouldn't recoil.
      again, thanks, it has inspired me to be more open (and expose myself more). cheers.

    2. Thanks. That's a great point. Staring at pics/vids is easy. Listening to someone's else's work takes effort and engagement. Yes!

    3. Opening mind/heart is a great point. However, it's worth considering that 80% of music/art/whatever made just isn't going to resonate with you. I'm won't defend gear fetishization because I think it's source has more to do with materialism and capitalism than anything else, but I understand it because at least with gear there's something more concrete to latch onto. Sometimes it puts the music into context. e.g. "Holy shit they made this awesome song with that!?" or conversely, "This sure is a piece of shit for being made on such a classic piece of gear". Irony abound. At any rate, talking about gear also guarantees a conversation can take place without hurting anyones feelings.

  5. Great article! Delightful read. Thanks for the effort and thought you put into this.

    1. I wouldn't if no one read. So thanks to you.

  6. good article !!! but
    #1 ART IS FREE absolut... every body can do what he or she wants....and post it.
    #2 never forget we have only two ears and eys and a grey mass inbetween and a heart and some feet to dance.... enjoy it
    #3 I am a gear fetishist and I am simple music lover I enjoy to be stimulated on all my sides
    #4 super great input...but in the end there is no right or wrong
    Take the best and leave the rest! ;)

  7. What sort of keyboard did you use? To type this article?

    I've always believed that making music and making sand castles are pretty much the same. No rules. Thanks for writing.

  8. This article total!y missed the point.

    When two guitarists meet at a party do you think they play each other their music? Or do they talk about what they have in common - the gear they use to make music? Pedals. Amps. Guitars. Why would synth-heads be any different?

    Now take that analogy online. Most of the facebook groups that I and other electronic musicians belong to have names like "volca" or "synthesizer freaks" or "aira". You bet I'm going to look at posts about gear more than music related posts BECAUSE THESE ARE GEAR RELATED GROUPS.

    When I want to check out music or discuss music I go to musician-related groups.

    It's not rocket science.

    1. On the contrary, how can I have missed "the point"? This is my blog. I wrote it. So don't you think that in this case I get to decide what the point is? Of course, I'm wise enough to know that not everyone will get the point. I'm essentially describing a blind spot here and, if you have it, you're not going to get it. You have it and consequently didn't get it. You're right that most FB groups are gear groups. And that is exactly the problem I'm describing.

  9. Thanks , great read

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  11. Interesting article indeed... Fetichism is something we all have to fight as we're living in a society which tends to promote it. It has much to see with merchandising capitalism blablabla. I'm quite fond of the diy mood, which you don't talk about. It's a heavy tendency in electronic music lately, I think. It transforms the "i want, I need" into something of an understanding process, which could fit to one's singularity. What I want that doesn't exist, I'll make it. And I'll get the knowledge to build it. And it's gonna be unique.

    It's a creative process too, without refering to any commercial standard. What's more worth than a machine/process which is unique ?

    I think this current reveals a sweet way to reconcile this dichotomy.

    Maniacs are freaky, but it's a pathology. As a french i observe a sick society. Collective neurosis. I know north america is even worse. Fetichism and merchandising, as W.Benjamin wrote it, is linked to political and individual choices and affects many of our behaviours.

    There's no universal method for sure. Mediocrity can be produced with any gear, and expression too.
    Can't it ?

    1. You make some good points. But although DIY is certainly booming you have to realize that for every DIYer there are 20 or maybe even more who just want the next thing. Its at its height, but its a small market because most people simply don;t want to fiddle themselves. They want a shiny thing someone else made that works out of the box. I wrote this blog quite a while back now and haven;t surveyed the scene for a year or two. But I imagine its not changed that much. Thanks for reading.