I have two things open in front of me as I write this. On my computer screen is an application window for Reason 7, a digital audio workstation that emulates the look and methods of a hardware-based electronic music studio. The other is a random page from the Dance Music Manual by Rick Snoman. The relationship between the two, half antagonistic, half collaborative, shows how far electronic music has gone in the journey from Vladimir Ussachevsky to Skrillex, and how much has been lost on the way.
Snoman’s book is indeed a manual. There’s a decent primer on sound synthesis, and an introduction to the rudiments of music theory. The core is a set of instructions for various electronic dance genres, with writing like: “all euphoric trance music will utilize a four-to-the-floor time signature”; “in terms of physical tempo, most [tracks] stay around 137-145 B.P.M. (beats per minute).” There are specifications for building the proper rhythms and melodies and even the timbres that define genres. Anyone with a laptop and enough patience could follow the manual closely and end up with tracks of “House,” “Trance,” and “U.K. Garage.”
When and how all this rigid taxonomy began is a mystery. It’s fair to say that Luigi Russolo is the conceptual father of electronic music by virtue of his book L’Arte dei Rumori (The Art of Noises), first published in 1916, and his Intonarumori (mechanical noise generators). There are early electronic instruments like the theremin and ondes martinot. But that all existed within the Western classical tradition; even Russolo used meter and measures. Electronic music as a genre and way of thinking begins with magnetic recording tape.
When sound—any kind of sound—is captured on tape, it becomes an object. When sound is an object, it is pure material for composers. Russolo’s noise was made in opposition to conventional instrumentation, Schoenberg’s atonality was made in opposition to what was becoming conventional dissonance, and each was a crypto-conservative way to preserve past forms. But when tape came along, and composers took to it with razor blades and splicing blocks, there was no past, only sound and time.
The idea that any sound, even noise, could be made musical was important; but the idea that music could be structured through nothing more than sound happening in time, and that time could be marked with a stopwatch or a ruler, rather than beats in a measure, was a doorway into a new universe. It’s meaningful that the pioneers of electronic music were composers working within the language of traditional notation: Ussachevsky, Cage, Varèse. They were the vanguard of post-WWII composers, who needed a way to make music that was entirely new, unburdened by the decadence of political and social history.
The 70-odd years of this history is not so much secret as literally underground. It’s the story of spare basement rooms at universities and broadcasting stations that were filled up with tape recorders, oscillators, and modular synthesizers (no one saw a keyboard for decades), with a parallel track that started in 1957 inside the mainframe computers of Bell Labs. There are true musical masterpieces like Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge, Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon, and Alvin Curran’s Songs and Views of the Magnetic Garden. And there is a huge amount of experimental, eccentric, and fascinating music produced by musicians and composers plugging things in, and turning things on, and waiting expectantly to see what might happen.
It’s now easy to hear this through one of several collections. The single best is Ohm: The Early Gurus of Electronic Music, an excellent introduction to the depth and breadth of the field. Sub Rosa’s seven volume An Anthology of Noise and Electronic Music is a broader survey of styles and eras, and connoisseurs will want to seek out Keith Fullerton Whitman’s CD-R series Unheralded Classics of Electronic Music. Even the tidiest survey shows the unique nature of the music: that it makes its own history inside the world of mass consumer culture, that its raw materials and traditions are the sounds outside classical instrumentation; the stuff from the radio, record albums, and the streets.
Ohm tells the story directly by bringing together seminal pieces such as Pierre Schaeffer’s “Étude aux chemins de fer,” created on tape from the sounds of train whistles; Louis and Bebe Barron’s entirely electronic and abstract soundtrack to Forbidden Planet; and Brian Eno’s “Unfamiliar Wind (Leeks Hills),” from his Ambient 4: On Land album. The early music was made at universities and studios because they had the budgets for the equipment, which was expensive at the time, but the aesthetic sensibility was, from the start, a seamless hybrid of academic, industrial, and popular.
It was a global patch chord connecting imagination to imagination, a floating world of collections and conversations about Cage and Kraftwerk (more important than the Beatles), Daphne Oram’s electronic arrangement of Ron Grainer’s theme for Doctor Who, Giorgio Moroder’s I Feel Love, and Christian Marclay: it was abstract, it was experimental, and you could even dance to it.
And then you could sample it: Pandora’s box. Worse, you could digitize it and quantize it. At the core of hip-hop there is still the avant-garde idea of making something new out of physical fragments of mass culture, of finding the point where Sun Ra, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, and Cameo meet. But hip-hop was also born long past the point where pop music was not just commodified but industrialized, and when it moved from the edge of culture to the consumer masses, hip-hop grew musically thin and dull in pace with Moore’s Law.
Now it’s not made but assembled, produced. Samples and loops come prepackaged to be dropped into Garageband and repeated, mindlessly. Just prior, there was a brief glimmer of light as an offshoot of this process, the flash of Intelligent Dance Music from Aphex Twin and Autechre, choppy, complex rhythms that used digital drums to do things that human drummers couldn’t. But then musicians like Tyshawn Sorey showed they could do it, and do more, the machines couldn’t keep up, the rhythms were simplified into mere beats, and Intelligent became Electronic. Now we have DJ culture, Moby, Skrillex.
An article by Josh Eells in the September 30 issue of the New Yorker tells the massive, mundane tale. Electronic Dance Music (E.D.M.) is now a bigger cash producer in Las Vegas than gambling. Casinos are diverting resources away from slot machines and towards bottle service nightclubs, where DJs are making six figures a show to use Traktor or the like to drop in a synthetic drum beat here, a bassline there, add the occasional chord stab, and keep everything at the same 128 B.P.M. all night long. Beyond the music, it’s the audience that is industrialized, demanding the same pounding tempo, the same predictable drop, a self-selecting herd that volunteers to have its expectations and emotions shaped and controlled by machines.
E.D.M. drowns out the knowledge that there might be any other way. The same tools of industrialization can be used against the machines. The ratio of power to cost means that someone with quirky ideas and time on his or her hands can make something exceptional. The floating world still exists as a space where the learned and the naïve meet fruitfully. The profile is slender but the field is still broad, encompassing Keith Fullerton Whitman’s experiments with the nexus of digital and analog technology, the free-form electronic band Excepter, and Noah Creshevsky’s disorienting and amazing “hyperrealism.” These artists escape the source of the problem, which I can see in a little box at the bottom of my Reason window: B.P.M.
As a musician and a composer I loathe the term B.P.M.; it is an inflexible determinant controlling the most basic aspects of the music, the warden of a prison of quasi-fascistic aesthetics. B.P.M. is the punch-clock, the shop supervisor, the middle-manager of music, chopping tasks into mercilessly efficient “productivity.” Music exists in time and the experience of it is best when fluid. The modulation of pulse and tempo within duration is the single most important expressive element in making music, reflecting heartbeat, breath, and movement in the body. It is a tool that has been with us since man first sang, it is there in Bach and Mahler, in Robert Johnson, and Thelonious Monk, and Led Zeppelin. It is the thing that keeps us from being machines.
GEORGE GRELLA is the Music Editor of the Brooklyn Rail.