Friday, 13 January 2017

Electronic Music Maker Mottos

Recently I asked the members of Electronic Music Philosophy a question. The question was the following one: You are asked to write a motto for every electronic music maker to remember at all times. What motto do you give them? 

The question was, of course, a trick one. It was a trick question because, conceivably, every answer given could be right and every answer given could be questioned. There was no possible answer on which everyone would agree or to which everyone would have had to assent. It was, then, merely an excuse for a discussion. Or a blog. But then the question was set in the context of a Facebook group set up to encourage thought and discussion about electronic music. So its purpose was served. And I was very happy to find that I got quite a selection of answers. Some of these were jokey and not serious. These people are not yet aware that I never joke when I'm talking about electronic music but good humour dictates that I let their answers stand. Perhaps if they are reading this now they have become aware. It may be that as I now discuss some of the answers that were given I make a fool of myself by taking as serious something that wasn't. However, for the purposes of this blog I need to and so I will have to hope that the discussion overall is judged worthwhile at the end. Of course, before starting to argue against all the people in the group I'd like to thank them for taking the trouble at all. And now I'm going to tell you why your mottos were all wrong.

There were some mottos that suggested that what was required was industry or effort. Examples of this would be "just keep patchin ooooon," "Always do more than the machines" and "Get back to work". But I question whether electronic music is about work or effort. Of course, many will say that it is. They will point out that its only when you work that the synapses can start to fire and ideas take shape. By working you start to put your habits to work and enable what you are thinking to take effect. But yet it remains the case that you can just have an idea and bring it to life relatively simply. I myself use a kind of inspirational idea of music in practice. It remains a mystery to me why what I do that I like for an extended period thereafter is "good" and why other things I've done are "bad". But I know it has nothing to do with effort for often I have barely made any but the results are fine. Other times (a few!) I've made lots and it isn't. I cannot distinguish between my good pieces and bad ones on the basis of some kind of effort to results ratio. I doubt anyone can.

Perhaps the polar opposite of the "hard work" mentality in the answers given was the one which praised thinking. Examples here are "Get quiet and think," Do not forget to listen," "Start by silence" and "study music". Of course, you might expect that I have more sympathy with such answers but not simply so. Now I am never going to write in this blog that you shouldn't think in general terms but I am going to ask what you should be thinking about. If this thinking is a mere stroking of your musical egos then I am more firmly against it. Thinking is your opportunity to not do what you always do or what you want to do or what you might like as a result. Thinking is your chance to design an idea or a technique or a strategy for something you haven't done before and don't necessarily know the outcome to. So I'm more against the kind of thinking which studies conventions or enshrines ways of working that either the musical body as a whole or you yourself have canonized and more in favour of using thinking to think of new ways for you to do things. If you are going to think, don't waste it.

One idea which cropped up in the answers I was definitely against. This was the idea that you should do something you will like. No person who reads and is stimulated by reading John Cage can go along with this. Examples here are "Make the music you want to hear" and "Make music you love and others will love it too". The second idea there I simply don't believe not least because very many people make very private music. This is not least in that the internal sense of the music they make is very attuned to a particular person, the one who made it. It may not have been made to be widely liked for, in that, it loses the sense of being the music of a single soul that created it. Music is not simply communication nor is it simply made to amuse or entertain others. And, to be honest, I'm not sure if it should even be made "to be loved" at all in the first place. I also absolutely don't think we should be making what we want to hear. In fact, I think the opposite. I think that is a lot of the problem with why many hit a roadblock when making music. They want to make something they would like. On the contrary, I say that you should surprise yourself. You should make something you might not like and then challenge yourself to change so that you can come to like it. Music making is not ego stroking. It is consciousness expanding.

Some responses I got I especially liked. These are because they were both thoughtful and enigmatic in themselves. They challenged me and made me think about them. This is exactly the kind of answer I was hoping for. So "the more you think about music, the less you feel it" intrigued me because it suggested that something not necessarily cognitive, feeling, perhaps intuition, was important. And I couldn't agree more here. Thinking is one thing and has its uses, as mentioned above, but there are other human things which are no less important. Feeling or mood or intuition are some of these things. And this is nothing to do with knowledge or logic. It is allowing yourself to be guided, giving up micro-control. In a world when so much of music and so many music discussions are dominated by ideas of professionalism or what is the "right" way to do things I want to be that guy who constantly says there is no right way. Following a feeling or just doing something at random are equally as valid. There is no optimum place to put your speakers. There is no ideal way to use compression. There are just people who do things and sonic results. Stop getting bogged down in the idea music is about knowledge and just feel. Then have the confidence to go where your feelings take you. You cannot go wrong because there is no wrong.

Some of this attitude was mirrored in a number of answers, I'm happy to say. A number of people talked about breaking rules which is both good and bad in my view. Its good that they want to break them and advise others to do the same but its bad that they ever thought there were any rules to begin with. Of course, most people when getting into some interest start off very straight and play according to what the rules of their particular game appear to be. I remember the first music I made. It was a carbon copy of things I liked informed by reading articles in Sound on Sound magazine about what the right way to do things was (or the right way in 1985 when I started buying it). But the resulting music was a very bad, unfeeling, join the dots, kind of copy of the things I liked, things I had merely tried to imitate. In layman's terms, it was utter crap. I thought about this for years and had a couple of periods of doing nothing at all, trying to figure out why it was so dull and stilted. And then it hit me that I was trying to conform to someone else's ideas. Or even a whole industry's. I stopped buying Sound on Sound or, indeed, paying attention to what others thought was right. I started trying to do what I felt and disregarded any rules. Indeed, I tried to forget anyone else had any. That's when I started to get somewhere. So yes, Ian Haygreen, your answer "Everything's permissible. Including the kitchen sink" is absolutely correct! 

I didn't answer my own question when I made it. I wanted to see what everyone else said and then use a blog to set mine out. So I didn't answer because to do so would have stolen my thunder here. The answer I would give, which is equally as wrong and as challengeable as everyone else's, is "Be interesting and explore something". I say this because, first, it is meant to be a motto which is a kind of guiding thought or direction in which to head and I think we all need those. Without them we are simply inert. But I also think that because I think music should be about something. This can be an idea, an experiment, a feeling, a mood, or anything that can be explored musically, that is, in sound. So my motto is giving impetus and direction. But its also giving a purpose and a standard, its saying that you should aim for something, try to do what you are capable of and not stay in a comfort zone. "Be interesting and explore something" is about taking a risk and perhaps even getting into trouble. 

Because electronic music shouldn't be safe, right?

Friday, 6 January 2017

Electronic Music Genius?

There was controversy and debate, some of it a little feisty, in my Facebook group, Electronic Music Philosophy, last night when one member, Gavin McCabe, brought up the notion of "genius" in electronic music and, specifically, the question of if there are any geniuses in the world of electronic music to date. Electronic music in general is a music given birth to in the 20th Century and was naturally dependent on the discovery and human exploitation of electricity and its deployment domestically in human towns and cities. But once that was done artistically-minded people interested in sound began to utilize it. However, it was not until the developments of the 1960s, by which time many leading industrial countries had one or more "radiophonic" studios equipped to explore and exploit electronic sound possibilities, that the first commercially commissioned purely electronic recordings made for entertainment and enjoyment by record companies started to be made. Sometimes thought to be the first here is Silver Apples of The Moon by Morton Subotnick. This recording was commissioned in 1967 by Nonesuch/Elektra Records meaning that the official period of commercial electronic music is 50 years in this year of 2017. This is a nice round figure over which to assess the question of genius within electronic music and to ask if it exists at all and, if so, in whom.

One thing I immediately noticed upon the asking of the original question in the Facebook group, as responses started to stack up, was that some people seemed to simply name people they liked. In any discussion of this nature you will always get people taking sides and cheerleading for their favorites. Our world has become a very partisan place and it seems to me that its often the nature of the case that people run to the barricades to support their favorites without necessarily knowing why or having any sort of reasonable or rhetorical case for supporting their choice. But if these people had had to make a case for why when they chose their genius then maybe there would have been less suggestions. Nevertheless, if we are to talk about "genius" at all then it must be the case that we can name the criteria of genius and thus apply them to any suggested candidates in a meaningful way. "I think X is a genius because I like them" is never going to fly. This same strategy, it seems to me, is also a way to undercut those who say that genius doesn't exist. Well, again, it can exist if we want to take various qualities or achievements, draw them up as criteria and call the resulting thing "genius".

This strategy is to side step the arguments (of which there seemed to be quite a few) that "genius doesn't exist". Others argued that even if we could name something "genius" then it wasn't "one dimensional" and it didn't allow or mandate ranking. Now aside from the fact that musicians have been ranked on a weekly basis in various charts from the 1950s onwards (and not always based on sales), no one is necessarily suggesting a "ranking of the geniuses" anyway. As already stated, it must surely be an entirely legitimate activity to survey the history of a field and pull out the most notable figures. We can call these people geniuses or we can call them something else as suits our taste. The fact remains that such a process, I think, can be done and might even have some worth for the understanding of the field of electronic music as a whole. I am very fortunate in that this group I started, which now has over 400 members, contains some very thoughtful and knowledgeable people. Utilizing their knowledge and intelligence a question about genius in electronic music could have numerous heuristic uses. One such use could be creating a network of influences and connections so that we could better see how electronic music has been invented and how it has metamorphosized and developed during its history. This could be very useful, instructive and suggestive of further electronic music in the future.

And so if we are going to ask this question at all then we need to fill out the notion of genius with some ideas. I am going to take a stab at this in an electronic music context. I think that, firstly, a genius must demonstrate influence beyond their own work. So having "a successful career" as a self-contained artist is not enough here. What you do and have done must manifestly affect how others think about the discipline. I think they should be a person who is running ahead of the pack of their peers rather than following or making no impact. So here people known to be experimentalists, people having one idea after another and inventing new ways and techniques to do things come to the fore. Extending that idea, I think that a genius, as I'm trying to define it here, must be doing something that others aren't doing so that, in some way, they extend and expand the artistic field of expression or ideas of what even counts as the art form of electronic music. This might also be called, in that horrible phrase, thinking outside the box.  Added to this could be the idea of those who operate with such forward thinking notions that there is not currently the equipment available for these people to express themselves as they envisage. And so they create their own equipment or have it commissioned to be made. There are other criteria that we could probably think of to begin to construct a disciplinary matrix of genius to measure electronic music practitioners against. Perhaps you can think of others too but this is my preliminary attempt.

So who gets captured in my genius net thinking this way? Well Kraftwerk do. Kraftwerk affected how others thought about electronic music and, all to their credit, different kinds of people too, both urban black American musicians who would go on to make Electro and Techno and white English guys who wanted to be pop stars like OMD. They also had equipment commissioned to be made as what they wanted to do didn't exist at the time. It stands to reason, then, that they were having ideas that others weren't. So my genius matrix is suggesting very strongly that there was some genius in Kraftwerk. But that same matrix also seems to knock out many of the names that were added to a semi-serious poll I started to name the geniuses of electronic music in the same Facebook group. Trent Reznor, for example, is a very famous electronic music. His career is successful and he has even won awards such as an Oscar and Grammys. His studio is an aladdin's cave of equipment. I would even count myself a fan. But is his work influencing others, changing how people think about the discipline and helping to birth new forms of electronic music? Compared to Kraftwerk the answer must be no and my matrix of criteria helps us to see that. Thus we can judge, critique and compare people.


Embedded within Gavin McCabe's original question was the notion of a "scenius" as opposed to a genius, a term used by Brian Eno who has a better case than most for having the term "genius" applied to himself. This takes the focus of innovative and extraordinary contribution and locates it not at the personal level, which a number of people would be against for political reasons, and instead locates it at the community level. The idea here is that all the things we might want to praise and take note of in a personal connection actually occur in communities. No one person originates ex nihilo. Rather, it is the case that people are nodes on a network and they progress together. One individual may have an idea but it is the fertility of the respective time and place in which ideas grow. So Detroit in the early 80s which birthed Techno or Berlin in the late 60s which birthed various forms of Kosmische and eventually Berlin School or Bristol, England, in the late 80s and early 90s which gave us various forms of urban beat music through the collective of artists called The Wild Bunch who would become Massive Attack, producer Nellee Hooper and performer Tricky as well. Early Portishead were also influenced by this scene. You will be able to think of lots of other communities like this too.

                                             Brian Eno in 1973

I have a lot of time for this idea for it has a lot to recommend it. But in the end I don't see the need to make one choice or the other. The business of mapping the connections between electronic music practitioners can involve noting the most vital and creative scenes but also the main players within them. Another marker of a genius as opposed to a scenius could also be people who move beyond their immediate circumstances into others but with the same level of influence and activity. A good example here is Brian Eno himself who has worked and recorded in numerous different scenarios with equal success from working with German krautrockers in the mid 70s such as Harmonia (which contained Cluster members Roedelius and Moebius as well as ex-Kraftwerk and Neu! guitarist, Michael Rother) to working with true genius David Bowie and even cod rockers, U2. And that is without mentioning his own work, influenced by others as I'm sure he would be the first to admit, in the world of ambient music. So what I am saying is that we can note the individual contributions of a figure like Eno but also note the places he has been and the people he came into contact with. We don't need to choose between genius and scenius because we can map both in an effort to understand the whole.

In the end, an interest in mapping either phenomena is based on wanting a wider field of understanding for the discipline of electronic music with which you are involved. This is both important and necessary in order to understand the context in which electronic music is taking place and the places it has been before. Electronic music, as I have previously noted, is supremely a music of both possibility and ideas for when you turn the electricity on and direct it through many various devices things become possible that formerly were not and, depending on your setup and desired outcomes, not necessarily with any great stability or predictability. Human beings, as one of their notable traits, are copyists. Indeed, we learn all the languages we speak by imitation of the sounds we hear others making and, through our intelligence, we learn to manipulate these things for our own purposes and advantages. And so learning from one another comes naturally to us. This, I think, demonstrates that all progress and learning is communitarian in origin - it relies on others - but, at the same time, it doesn't deny the possibility of the especially gifted or notable individual. I'm happy to agree that the quite short history of electronic music, commercial or not, has contained both fertile sceniuses and possibly one or two geniuses as well. But who they are and which made the most difference will be a matter of a hundred Internet arguments. Or maybe even more than that.

But there is nothing wrong with that. Progress comes through interaction with others. That's why I started a Facebook group called "Electronic Music Philosophy" at all.