Digital Magma: From the Utopia of Rave Parties to the iPod Generation
Lukas & Sternberg, New York (2011)
For its ability to speak to feelings and to alter our perception of times and spaces, music has a singular potency. In addition, eras and trends in music can reveal fundamental characteristics about the circumstances of its production and reception. In Digital Magma, Jean-Yves Leloup offers his conception of how electronic music has enabled a generation to pursue its unique penchant for communal experience, while also providing contemporary societies with a means to reflect their individual realities. In the digital age, he suggests, electronic music has been a volatile ground on which technical developments have paralleled radical shifts in the creation of cultural products and their producers.
A D.J. and sound artist, as well as a writer and curator based in Paris, Leloup commences with techno and the club, but he duly departs on a path that reaches back into the history of musical experimentation in the early 20th century and then out into the broader reaches of digital technology’s influence on contemporary culture. He articulates this through such themed chapters as “Immersion,” “Playlist,” “Avatars,” “Collectivism,” and “Dematerialization,” crisscrossing the trajectories of ambient music (from Erik Satie to Brian Eno), minimalism (John Cage and La Monte Young), sound installation (Max Neuhaus), and concrete sound (from Karlheinz Stockhausen to Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry), among others.
Despite these historical points of reference, Leloup’s principal theories of “the culture of the mix,” “the permanence of sound,” immersion, and spectacle find their most pointed explication in the case of electronic music. The D.J. creates potentially endless mixes, appropriating and transmitting sounds originally composed by other musicians. The listener, absorbed in the crowd, possibly lost on substances, and caught in an eternal return of bass, becomes the site of his or her own spectacle.
Techno, a subset of electronic music, was born in Detroit in the 1980s “of a crossbred enrichment between Black American culture, Western avant-gardes, and European pop music.” As Derrick May, one of its local pioneers, said of the music originating from that once-dominant site of American car production: “We created our own sounds, and all these sounds, subconsciously, came from the idea of industry, machinery, mechanics, electronics…When we decided to create, we created our environment.” Such a link to history is paradigmatic for the author’s understanding of music in the digital age: it develops at the confluence of specific circumstances and technological innovation. The quotation is further emblematic of the fact that Leloup often allows primary sources and authorities on the subject to make his case for him.
The development of electronic music has coincided with fundamental changes to music and its relationship to the industry of its production. For example, Leloup believes that a “dematerialization” of music—in the course of its digitization and transferral to devices for portable listening and storage—has caused it to become “both omnipresent and devalued.” Moreover, the genre has paralleled various tendencies on the Internet: toward the integration of individuals into virtual landscapes (see Brian Eno’s atmosphere-defining album Ambient 1, Music for Airports), the manipulation of identity through avatars and impersonation (see the multiple personae of Uwe Schmidt, a k a Atom Heart), the overlapping of media (see the audiovisual concerts of Carsten Nicolai and Ryoji Ikeda), and the democratization of information and its production (see the output from home studios, such as that by Richard James, a k a Aphex Twin). Following these developments, the genre conflicts with the music industry’s drive to control production, since the creation of electronic music can be accomplished with as little as a laptop, and is further aided by the opportunities for reproduction, modification, and distribution offered by Copyleft and Creative Commons licenses.
Given this theme of progress, it comes as no surprise that the author pairs popular theories with lesser known subjects and theories, such as Baudrillard’s notion of “hyper-reality” with Kiss cover bands. However, Leloup tends to conflate abstract ideas and specific cases which do not comfortably reside on the same ground, and he does not go to the necessary lengths to account for their juxtaposition. But it is possible for this divide to be bridged, as evidenced by the album In Memoriam Gilles Deleuze (Mille Plateaux, 1996), which resonates with, rather than attempts to explicate, what makes the philosopher’s work relevant in another field.
Moreover, Digital Magma retreads territory that scholarship has already explored, and it is not likely that this offering will be the definitive analysis. However, it does depict a thriving cultural history that is prime for recollecting, relaying, and re-envisioning.