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.

1 comment:

  1. I think what defines genius is synthesis, by which I do not mean electronics, but the ability to take what has gone before and create something new and different. Elvis' Sun recordings would be an example of collective genius as would Sgt Pepper. I think Eno probably qualifies as a genius, but I suspect the genius who takes electronic music into an entirely new place will not be a knob twiddler but a coder.