Thursday, 15 December 2016

The Loneliness of The Electronic Musician

The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner is a short story by Alan Sillitoe, a man who happens to come from the same home town as me. In its original literary form it tells the story of Smith, a poor Nottingham teenager of working class stock (again, like me), who has few prospects in life and drifts into petty crime. Eventually the law catches up with him and he finds himself sent to borstal (prison school) where he seeks solace in cross country running. Smith turns out to be very good at this, something the borstal authorities latch on to as an important race is coming up against a prestigious private school. Smith is offered an easy time of it for the rest of his sentence if he can win the race.  The twist in the tail of the story comes when Smith races away from all the other runners in the race only to stop running a few meters short of the finishing line whereupon he lets his competitors catch and pass him, losing the race on purpose even though this will mean the removal of his easier lifestyle and the imposition of punishments instead. In taking this action he demonstrates his personal freedom and defiance of those who would seek to coerce him (as well as what they represent) and demonstrates his own personal authenticity.

Coil, the experimental electronic band, released their first official record, How To Destroy Angels, in 1984 even though the main players in the band, John Balance and Peter "Sleazy" Christopherson, had started what would become Coil in around 1982. They continued on until 2004 when Balance, by this time utterly reliant on drink, fell to his death. In the 20 odd years of their existence they put out a catalogue of experimental electronic music which could never be defined either by one word or by genre. (Therefore you should resist the simplistic description found in a number of places "industrial".) They took delight, in fact, in evading concise description. Having recently voraciously read a number of interviews with Balance and Christopherson, I've started to form a sense of what they were about which perhaps suggests why so many mention them as influences. A couple of quotes may suggest their direction of travel:

"Resist the things you can find elsewhere." - Peter Christopherson

"I think all good music should be an attempt to change people's mind-sets." - John Balance

Having read numerous interviews it seems that Coil did not ever want to repeat anything they had done before. Examples of this would be what is regarded by many as the "holy trinity" of their early works Scatology, Horse Rotorvator and Love's Secret Domain which are each quite different. For Coil to have done something once was enough and, thereafter, something new became the driving force. In a number of interviews Balance is quoted as always being one album ahead of the one they are currently at. There is a constantly forward thinking attitude to their work. It seems that Coil required an intellectual or experimental idea to be expressed in the work that they were doing to give it some validation. This is true even though Christopherson, who was formerly a member of Throbbing Gristle too, is quoted as saying that sometimes the music is just music. 

Nothing Coil did was without some risk, some sense of danger or adventure. There always had to be something at stake. There was also a focus, especially from Balance, on the idea of turning base sounds into the gold of music. John Balance himself was very interested in alchemy which is what Scatology, their first album, had been all about. Both Balance and Christopherson, who for a time was a desired director of advertisements and pop videos, something which financed Coil's indulgences, were men of ideas and it was inevitable their music would be the product of these idealistic riches as they transformed an interest in base sounds into the production of electronic music. Two later examples of these riches are the supposedly trance-inducing Time Machines in which each of the four tracks is named after a drug and the two volumes of Musick To Play in The Dark in which each track is almost a different genre and yet it all coheres magickally somehow.

Jean-Michel Jarre at his GRP Synthesizers A4 synth in the video for Oxygene 17. He famously made his fame-creating album Oxygene in his kitchen in 1976.

This blog is to be about electronic musicians, people like me and probably you if you are reading this. We are people who make our music at home on our little or, in some cases, not so little setups. Having written a few blogs about this and taken part in a few interactive social media chats about it it seems there are a number of common issues we all face. This particular blog aims to give a sort of overall picture of the business of making electronic music and to drag a few of these issues into the telling of it. Since this is a personal blog this will be a personal view. So you don't have to agree with me. You may even strongly disagree. Its all good. Feel free to comment with your disagreements somewhere so we can all learn from each other or be stimulated to further thought. It may seem, at first thought, that this particular blog has got off to a strange start with a mention of a short story and a description of a band. But, hopefully, by the end it will make sense why I started this way.

Let me start (yes, this is the start!) by talking a bit about electronic music as I see it. Electronic music is a kind of music which specifically enables variation, change and difference. As a means of generating music it focuses on much more than pitch which is the main way that traditional acoustic musical instruments can vary their sound. Electronics specifically energize and enable huge timbral variations even in one simple sound. Electronic music is a music of manipulation. Added to this we should note the ubiquity of electronic or electronically created sounds in our world. They are all around us from electronic doors opening to the beeps of our phones, alarm clocks and the noises made by a million other electronic devices. As I sit here typing now I can hear the whirr of a computer fan and the radio of my neighbor. Electronically generated noises have become the background to our lives and electronic sounds are now a music of life.

But where there are sounds there must also be meanings. We live in a physical world and sound itself is a physical thing with physical consequences. For example, set any two sounds against each other and merely by doing so you set up a relationship between them, you ask that hearers relate them one to another. Electronic music is capable of what Tony Rolando of Make Noise often refers to as "unfound" sounds and so the possibility exists to create and juxtapose sounds that never existed until you made them. These sounds need to be set in context and given a meaning. But how shall we do this? Each of us comes from a different place and has a different story to tell. Each of us has very different musical vocabularies and musical histories. This opens up the prospects for differing meanings to be given and, in the end, the electronic sounds and musics that we create end up becoming part of a great electronic music conversation greater than any one of us. 

But there is a problem and this is where I turn to us as people who make electronic music. Electronic music has a potentially unending world of sounds within it but we people who make it do not for we are limited in many ways. Yet, as part of being human beings, we have an exploratory focus. Human beings always want to go further than they have gone before, to know more, to stretch themselves. This is part of how we survive, part of how we stay sane. It is for this reason that things like William Burroughs' "cut up technique" (taken advantage of by many musicians over the years) or taking drugs (which Coil did in great quantities) or the use of chance operations (by Cage and others) exist for all these and many other strategies are ways of getting to places you could never get by volition alone. We ourselves are limited by being ourselves and are our own limitations and so some creative examples of our species find ways to get beyond themselves by using various strategies and techniques. In order to escape the creative prison of the self you need some way to disengage from or bypass your own will.

Intellectually speaking, I relate this notion of needing to disconnect from yourself in order to go beyond yourself to what the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche refers to in his 1878 book, Human, All Too Human, as "a gauze of impure thinking." In a chapter of that book in which he discusses artists and writers he talks about laying "a gauze over reality". He also talks about the shadow which in art "beautifies" the artwork and suggests that, in a similar way, "muffling" is necessary in order to make the things that matter in art clearer. His comment finishes in this way:

"Art renders the sight of life bearable by laying over it the gauze of impure thinking."

What does this mean? As I understand it here, related to my former point about needing to get beyond yourself in order to create things that you never could by yourself, it suggests that musical creation is not something direct, it is something that is almost approached sideways. An example would be a recent challenge I posed members of a Facebook group I curate. I asked them to produce pieces of music on the theme "abstract". Having completed the work and published the resulting podcast someone asked in the group how the contributors had gone about the task. A number of them had not done so by thinking about abstract things and then trying to give musical expression to the thought. Instead, they had set up various processes and, as it were, allowed any abstraction to shine through as a result. So this was not a direct looking of abstraction in the face. The "gauze" of their processes was laid over the task all the better to see the abstractions that might then show through. By analogy to hunting we might suggest that it is better to attack a creative project from the side rather than facing the charging beast head on. We need an angle which allows our creative attack and shows a creative vulnerability we can exploit.

Of course, one of the greatest problems with electronic music is that in such a music of possibility, with such a wide sonic territory to survey, one can feel lost. There are so many choices that could be made sometimes a kind of freezing panic is induced. Often the reaction to this is to get stuck in ruts or to retreat to the safety of what you know. You then turn into one of those safe but irrelevant artists who happily churns out the same thing ad infinitum. Its my strong belief that electronic musicians, of all musicians, should not be like this. But this then becomes a matter of courage. Electronic music is not in my understanding rules-based music. It is a "there are no rules" music. Such music feels no obligation to a tradition or standard. It is not about certain chords or an identifying structure. It is a moment in time and its only consistency is with itself. The only sense it needs to make is on its own terms. But it takes courage to be like this, especially if you are publishing the music you make. Sounding unlike anything else heard before, or even deviating from the general flow, can make you stand out and not everyone has the courage to do this. Many more make endless space-themed soundscapes or yet another ten minutes of four/four "techno" which, apparently, is the only idea they have ever had (for example).

In thinking about this subject for this blog I came up with a list of six keywords I thought electronic music should (for this is my opinion) be about. They are: 1. ideas 2. identity 3. intellect 4. possibility 5. courage and 6. personality. These keywords enunciate what I see as a fusion between a creator and their electronic tools to make electronic music. (As a little anecdote here I'm reminded of an interview that Kraftwerk head honcho, Ralf Hütter, once gave in which he reminded his curious interviewer that Kraftwerk were "Mensch Maschine" and pointed out that the human body does in fact have its own electrical current.) It is in fusing electronic machines and human beings that electronic music results. But electronic music is still a very specific thing that we need to take note of for, in so doing, we realize its specific challenges. Electronic music making, for instance, can be a very solitary form of music making and for many it is since the very mode of its existence enables one person alone to conduct an array of machines all by themselves. This then leads to the necessity for ideas since these ideas may be the only company the electronic musician has. But, I believe, the resulting music also needs to have some character or personality of its own, to have been thought out and to push some boundary. I see electronic music as being about realizing some possibility not yet achieved otherwise what is it for? The best examples of this craft, as I see it, have been exactly that.

But let's try to explain this a little better for I am being vague and dancing around what I mean without directly shining a spotlight in its face. To do this I need to tell my own story.

Speaking for myself, my own interest in music has always been electronic. It started when, as a teenage babysitter, I would drag out an SH-101 and a Juno 106 from behind the settee where the person I was babysitting for kept them when they weren't in use. I liked to play with the sliders and see what effect it had on the sound. I had an electric guitar at the time (before this I had only had a radio cassette player to play with) and I started to write very straight, structured verse/chorus type songs (with lyrics). The idea of music as expression was very strong with me due to my own troubled background and circumstances. Making music was a chance to have a voice in a world in which I often did not. The electronic nature of the sound was important too because it was something you could bend and mould into any shape but, most importantly, into a shape that others didn't have and so couldn't claim to own. It allowed for a creating of a unique identity. The history of electronic music is littered with acts that have created numerous identities because of electronics.

Many times in my own story after that, which was more a slow burn than a quick rise to music making success, I experienced what I referred to earlier as a freezing panic. I was lucky enough at one point in my life to become relatively prosperous and my collection of electronic gear grew. But it got to the point that there were so many things that they got in each other's way. (And I see many bigger collections in numerous Internet pictures of various home setups.) To learn one synthesizer properly would certainly take many months and some would say years. If you have several it is a task that may never be completed. This is not conducive to creativity and is, indeed, a waste of resources. I've always been strongly focused on the idea that it is the fruits of an endeavor that count. As you may have understood from previous blogs, having x,y or z piece of gear means very little to me. What you did with it much more so. Fortunately, life had an antidote to this problem in that it made me poor again and much of the gear went. Left with a bare  minimum that I required to keep on making music I started to discover resources that had always been there but had been hidden by the things I used to have.

These resources were intellectual and ideas-based. I started to research the history of electronic music in which pioneering work was done but without really any of the devices that today even the most casual music maker might have for just a few pounds. Today an app on a phone can achieve what it took Pierre Schaeffer the might of a radio studio to do. But what Schaeffer had that the person with the app might not is the sense of possibility and the intellectual framework as a background to his activities which energized his work. I researched not just Schaeffer but others like Cage, Edgard Varese, Stockhausen, the kosmische musicians of Germany and even up to this very week with bands like Coil and I found that they all had intellectual and experimental frameworks and attitudes of mind for what they were doing. They did not expect their ideas to drop from the sky, delivered by some fortuitous stork. They all realized that ideas come from having an active, fertile, engaged mind. This enables both the ideas and the setting to work in giving them sonic expressions. Ideas are all around for they are made of life itself. But only a certain kind of mind can tune into them and cultivate them. (Here the former point about coming at things sideways is pertinent too!)

  Pierre Schaeffer who, incidentally, was Jean-Michel Jarre's teacher for a while.

Electronic music is a very paradoxical thing. I conceive of it as very anti-conventional and anti-knowledge in the sense that it is more an electronic expression of instinct. (Wise people already realize that human awareness is about much more than facts or knowledge.) Music that is knowing relies on patterns, forms and structures but electronic music need not and, perhaps, should not. Its my view that something like Switched on Bach is fine as a curiosity but irrelevant as an expression of electronics. Electronic music is possibility not a new way to do something that could be done 200 years ago. It should be something no one could do until now. In order to make it this there needs to be an intellectual and experimental framework behind it to direct and motivate its creation. This is why I think many electronic music makers are deep thinkers and ones with a desire for constant forward movement. We value art in general that is an expression of an idea and electronic music, with its ability to make sound plastic to a musician's touch, is perfectly placed to take advantage of this. But it is also why so much electronic music is devalued in that it is empty, sterile and devoid of ideas, a hollow, formless repetition or a commercialized shell. It lacks substance and is therefore seen right through. Electronics can be vapid and insubstantial, like cotton candy which, if you eat too much, ruins your insides. But it can also be an electronic representation of existence itself thus containing the ultimate substance and meaning. (The name under which I publish my own music is Elektronische Existenz.)

I speak in big terms here for I really do believe that music made with electronics has an ability to express more of our human experience, with more meaning inherent in it, than ever before. But we, as electronic musicians, need to be up to this mammoth task. It will not just be there at the fingertips of anyone with an app on their phone or a basic synth at their fingertips. There is a sense, of course, in which music is simple, a matter of stringing sounds together. It does sound very simple. And yet the task is also very complex for not every collection of sounds will be imbued with those qualities that give it feeling, expression, meaning and the basic significance for us which is what happens when some piece of music makes an impact. How this happens is very enigmatic and is never the mere repetition of a formula. Its my own intuition that music is both expression and communication of a kind. I have written in the past that my own electronic music is a kind of philosophy. Philosophy, of course, is a love of wisdom and I can understand those who understand music as a kind of communicative wisdom that expresses thought and ideas beyond words. That's certainly how I feel about mine which is very deliberate and purposefully created and understood. Going down this route can lead even into spiritual understandings of music, something with which Coil themselves were very involved and which Nietzsche wrote about in his discussions of the ancient festivals of Dionysos in ancient Greece which were times of intoxication in every sense, not least musical.

I need to start wrapping this up and so I return back to The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner. I do so because I believe that our hero from that story, Smith, is our model electronic musician. He is a figure of authenticity expressing his personal freedom in the only way he can. I believe it is the electronic musician's opportunity to be able to do the same through music. I used the example of Coil earlier too because I believe that they did exactly this. Their driving motivation was an expressive and experimental one in which all their creative work was an expression of some personally important idea. No idea was too strange, too dissonant or too eccentric for them. If it could prove its experimental and intellectual worth then it was a creative direction to take regardless of any outside influence. In one interview I read the members of Coil claimed that a number of people had said they were scared of them, seemingly because they would have and pursue ideas which others just wouldn't. This seems to me an entirely healthy thing to do in a creative sense. And, again, I hold out electronic music's special place here because of all the many possibilities inherent within it.

I want to finish with a bit of a teaser. First, think about your music. What do you sound like? Do you sound like anything in particular? Can or could you be identified from how you sound? Think about it. If the answer is yes, is this a good or a bad thing? At various points in their career Coil were quite touchy about this question. The idea that their fans had expectations, that they expected them to sound a certain way, became a bit of a burden. The members of Coil had a different view. They wanted to be true and authentic to their own motivations and interests (much like Smith) but didn't want the burdens of others or to be pigeon-holed to a particular sound. Personally, I think they achieved this in spades. Their music is not definable or identifiable by genre. What seems important to me, throughout all the vicissitudes and possibilities that music with electronics may bring, is that some synthesis of humanity and machine comes together which produces an authentic product. Where it does something worthwhile has taken place. 

Please feel free to join my Facebook group Electronic Music Philosophy for more discussions like this.


  1. Glad I found your blog and the fb group. Intellectual, thought provoking yet unpretentious! A refreshing thing indeed.

  2. Great. And... What's the use of being a master in something nobody cares? I am an electronic musician in the comfortably loneliness of my own. Nobody cares but me. Thanks.