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The State of Electronica, Revisited

This is the first piece I ever wrote for Computer Music Magazine, way back in the early 2000s. I decided to revisit it now, nearly a decade later, to see if I still “agreed” with what I said back then. My current 2011 comments are in italics. I welcome your comments. :-)

The State of Electronica

I love electronic music. More precisely, I love good electronic music: music that surprises, fascinates and expands your sense of the width and breadth of the musical world, and the physical world along with it. One of my earliest musical memories is of hearing Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge on a Grundig tube radio in my safe little suburban Long Island home. The rich polyphony of reverb-drenched boy soprano lines filled my head with visions of eerie alien landscapes and forbidden rituals. The piece haunted me for weeks afterwards … I still get chills when I listen to it.

I’ve followed the evolution of electronic music ever since, from the sometimes primitive (and often beautiful) efforts of the brave e-musical pioneers – Varèse, Stockhausen, Boulez, Xenakis, Subotnick, Lucier, et al – to the rise of analogue synthesis, through the unfortunate backwater of minimalism, to the dawn and eventual ascendancy of computer music, to the current flowering of techno-ambient electronica. And I’ve grown increasingly disenchanted with most of what I hear.

I’m less disenchanted now in 2011, after a decade of listening. Maybe I’ve found what I was looking for. (My taste is very off the beaten path …) Maybe I’ve lowered my standards; familiarity breeds comfort, yes? Maybe I’ve expanded them, broken down some of the conservatory-trained barriers I was inculcated with. In any case I’m having lots more fun listening to “popular” electronic music these days than I did back then.

The spirit of experimentation and adventure that accompanied early e-musical efforts has, sadly, given way to sameness, flatness, safeness, reliance on formulas, easy and slick solutions, and, perhaps worst of all, fashion. The suck factor is alarmingly high. And nowhere is this more evident than in the various e-music subgenres that dwell within the über-genre of ‘dance music’.

Okay I still think the suck factor is high. But I’ll amend that to say: high for me, personally. I would no longer presume to speak for others. I’ve met too many cool/talented musicians over the last decade who love dance music. And trying my hand at making some – in my recent-ish avant-house article for CM magazine – gave me a healthy respect for the deep craft of making compelling dance music. It ain’t easy! And it’s a heckuva lot more fun than I thought it would be.

How to stop this insidious creep towards artistic and spiritual mediocrity?

Again, I recognize now that this “mediocrity” is relative to my personal musical aesthetic. Beauty is in the ear of the beholder, yes?

A shift in attitude is the first step. As long as composers (and listeners) stay firmly planted in their narrow musical comfort zones, then nothing will change.

Once you’ve gotten a taste of the exotic beauties that lie beyond status quo electronica, you’ll be hooked. You won’t want to go back to four-square, predictable, filter-sweep-drenched techno suckville.

Unless, of course, you prefer the sound of 4/4 filter-drenched techno. It’s all relative!

And that’s when the fun can truly begin! Here are a few techniques you can use to nudge your e-musical creations towards higher levels of power, subtlety, and expressiveness …

Non-Standard Meters

4/4 is the mandatory meter for beat-oriented electronic music; stray too far from it and you risk being arrested by the Trance Police. While 4/4 grooves can be dead cool, these days they’re more likely to be dead, period. Is there anything more spirit-killing than an unrelenting, metronomic hi-hat that cuts through the mix like a slow-motion jackhammer?

Dare to break out of your 4/4 straightjacket! Try 3/4 or 5/4 or 7/4 or go really wild with 11/8. Add or subtract a beat at strategic points to keep your listeners interested. Change the tempo: double it suddenly, then slow it down gradually to a 16th of its original speed. Keep your listeners creatively off-balance, wondering what will come next.

As of 2011 4/4 grooves still rule in pretty much all varieties of popular electronic music. This is deeply disappointing to me, smacks of groove fascism: If your music is not centered around facile 4/4 beats, chances are it will be relegated to that most abysmal of all sub-(sub-sub) genre basements: experimental. There are, fortunately, exceptions. 4/4 dubstep grooves, for example, can be utterly gorgeous and compelling.

Original Timbres

One of the greatest strengths of electronic music is its ability to produce never-before-heard (or even imagined) sounds. And one of the greatest weaknesses of contemporary electronic music is that it tends to all sound the same: snarly, digital, filtered, full of sound and fury but empty inside. It’s the Virus syndrome; Access: shame on you.

Develop your ears! They’re by far the most important tool in your arsenal of audio devices. Develop an early warning system for clichéd sounds, and do your utmost to thwart them. Aim to create sounds that you’ve never heard before, but that work in the context of your own musical soundworld.

I find that timbre has gotten a lot more interesting in popular electronic music. You can hear it in movie scores, hip hop, ambient and glitch (of course), and many other contemporary e-genres. I think what happened was that out-there “experimental” sounds eventually became part of the mainstream, mostly as exotic backgrounds, teasers, flirtations with danger.

Scales and Harmonies

Think of the harmonies present in a Coltrane ballad, a Ravel piano piece or a Bulgarian women’s choir song: they all stem from unique underlying scales. Now think of the last dozen or so pitched electronic pieces you’ve heard. Chances are 95% of them use the tonal equivalent of 4/4: a major scale, or a minor scale, or a blues scale (yawn). Try basing your melodic world on non-standard scales and modes. For inspiration, look to jazz, impressionism, atonality or non-Western traditions but be sure to personalise it: rote imitation is an artistic cul de sac.

Alas, it’s still a major/minor world out there in popular e-music. Not that classic harmony isn’t capable of deep beauty; it is! But there are (psycho-emotional) places it can’t take you, places that other scales and pitch systems – and noise-centric approaches – can.

It might be an idea to wean yourself off looping, too. It all began innocently enough, with tape recorders playing looped audio material at different speeds. But it’s become a universal practice, a knee-jerk response, a compositional plague.

The likes of Acid and eJay have done as much to emasculate new music as the Clear Channel Radio Conglomerate. They’ve sold novice composers the lie that “you too can be a great composer with the right audio loops and a few clicks ’n’ drags.” Sure you can make music that way; give me an hour and I could teach my seven-year-old niece to create slick-sounding eJay songlettes, but does that make her a composer?

The point is not to abandon looping entirely but to recognise it for what it is: a quick, cheap way to generate repetitive patterns that bears little resemblance to the profound art of musical composition in its purest form.

I’ve changed my tune a bit with regard to looping. It used to just piss me off, period. Now I’m fine with it, as long as it doesn’t scream out to me: Here I go again, here I go again, here I go again. In other words, if I’m aware of rote looping, I generally lose interest in the musical goings on. Only when I’m not aware of it, or when it’s not rote (but evolving/changing), can it work for me.

Don’t Stop Listening!

Listen to everything: 60s pop, horror movie soundtracks, freeform ambient electronica, jazz improv, the second Viennese school, Zappa, Stockhausen, Hildegard von Bingen, commercials, street musicians, the sound your refrigerator makes when it kicks on in the middle of the night, the sound your partner makes when she sleeps, the sound your circulatory system makes when you sit in silence.

Never shut your ears to possibilities and your sonic repertoire will be enormous. And maybe, just maybe, that can save electronic music from a fate worse than extinction: slick, ubiquitous mediocrity.

I still basically agree with this. Listen to everything, even what you “don’t like.” Take it all in. Let it resonate in you. Remain open to allowing it to change you, mind and body and spirit.


Posted on November 14, 2011 at 11:59 am by rachmiel · Permalink

9 Responses

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  1. Written by Ariston
    on November 14, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    Straight and to the point – nice. And your 2011 comments add an important element to it all.
    I’ve gotten the impression lately that some electronic musicians are trying to move away from the point-n-click, loop-til-you-poop way of making music. Playing “real” instruments, using some of the nifty new controllers, keeping their hands off of the quantize button… and there’s some great music out there in unsigned and unpublished land. There’ll always be mainstream and mundane, but these are good times for “out there” stuff as well.

  2. Written by rachmiel
    on November 14, 2011 at 6:30 pm

    thanks for the comment, ariston. “loop till you poop” … nice! ;-) got any specific composers/tracks to share?

  3. Written by gratefulundead
    on November 14, 2011 at 10:12 pm

    I am an avid listener, non-expert, non-composer. Found this essay interesting on several levels, not least for what the you circa-2000 and the you of now had to say to one another. You seem more generous, less faciley judgmental now than then… I would guess you are older now, right?

    Here is a question: what is it that makes certain music electronic, other not? Does a Gibson Superstrat produce electronic music? How about a Hammond B-3? Pull the plug and nothing happens, that is pretty electronic. Or how about Glenn Gould’s massively dubbed, filtered, spliced and edited studio sessions of The Well Tempered Clavier, is that electronic music? This may be a ridiculous question, but I would be interested in your take on what makes music electronic. Where is the boundary?

    You don’t like endless loops and metronomic cymbal strikes. But to me, music is not just for listening. It’s for dancing, for setting a background ambience at a party that syncs with a heartbeat, it’s for singing with. And in its kinetic rather than cerebral uses, pure periodic repetition can be great, driving a kinetic, non-cerebral response. The most exciting parts of Rites of Spring are like that for me, pure physical movement. And they are as 4/4-hammered as it gets. Lighten up on the da-dum, da-dum, da-dum!

    Anyway, thanks for the essay and look forward to reading subsequent entries.

  4. Written by Slothrop
    on November 15, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    Hmmm, I think I’m more in agreement with Rachmiel 2011 on a lot of this!

    But yeah, I’d be interested to read more of your thoughts on 4/4. Personally I’m mostly interested in music for dancing to – not as opposed to music for listening to, but as music for listening to with your whole body rather than just your ears. And beyond the modern requirement of ‘mixability’, it does seem to be near constant that music for dancing to has some sort of even time to it – whether it’s in the bar itself or the phrasing.

    But there seems to be a lot more room within 4/4 than you give it credit for – whether it’s stuff like jungle where the 4/4 beat is at the core but it’s torn up and shredded and put through a wringer to the point where it really challenges the dancer to keep on top of it and still be with it when it all just about comes back together again, or minimal techno, where the beat is so steady and metronomic as to be almost subliminal, and exists as something that the rhythm and the phrasing and development of the tune define themselves against rather than derive themselves from.

  5. Written by rachmiel
    on November 18, 2011 at 11:07 am

    Slothrop, hi. :-) you’re probably right that 4/4 has more room than i give it credit for. after all, the Indian tala (meter) teental is essentially 4/4, and i’ve never tired of its possibilities. and a lot of the “splinter beats” i make are in 4/4, though listeners might not hear them that way. i just get pissed off at the Inviolable 4/4 Law that says *everything* has to be 4/4. if Indian music was *only* in teental, i’d be less interested in it. any RULE deserves (needs!) to be broken, yes? ;-)

  6. Written by rachmiel
    on November 18, 2011 at 11:27 am

    mr. undead, hi. :-) avid non-experts are imo about as good as it gets. ;-) and yes, i am a bit older now (damn forward arrow of time!) and gentler in my judgments. a good chunk of aging is realizing what you *don’t* know, ja?

    > Here is a question: what is it that makes certain music electronic, other not?

    well you could certainly say that ALL amplified/recorded/edited/etc. music is electronic. the only non-electronic music is plug/battery-less, live, here/now (then: gone!). but when i say “electronic music” i’m referring to the body of work that started with the pioneer electronic instruments (telharmonium, theremin, ondes martenot, etc.) continued through the post-ww-ii studio guys (schaeffer, stockhausen, takemitsu, et al) and is currently represented by digital music of all ilk (virtual computer instruments, synths, controllers, etc.).

    as for my distaste for loops, again: the worst “offenders” for me are rote loops. loops that change and evolve (even subtly) can work for me, because they seem NOT to take the easy/cheap way out. i cut my compositional teeth making fully notated pieces for acoustic instruments: violin, cello, clarinet, flute, piano, etc. nothing EVER repeats exactly/rote in a live instrumental performance … though i must say the early minimalists got close. ;-)

  7. Written by adam
    on November 29, 2011 at 3:06 pm

    You mention Zappa and listening to everything in the same sentence, and I feel compelled to leave you this quote from him:

    “The more your musical experience, the easier it is to define for yourself what you like and what you don’t like. American radio listeners, raised on a diet of _____ (fill in the blank), have experienced a musical universe so small they cannot begin to know what they like.”

    True facts.

  8. Written by Anthony Michael Hologram
    on December 6, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    Sometimes you think music is looping when it is not.

  9. Written by zawieszki na perforacj?
    on August 23, 2012 at 3:56 am

    I drop a comment whenever I appreciate a article on a website or I have something to valuable to contribute to the discussion. It’s triggered by the fire displayed in the article I looked at. And on this post speakFathom » The State of Electronica, Revisited. I was actually excited enough to leave a thought :-) I actually do have a couple of questions for you if it’s okay. Is it just me or does it seem like some of these remarks come across as if they are written by brain dead individuals? :-P And, if you are posting on other places, I’d like to follow anything fresh you have to post. Could you list all of your communal pages like your Facebook page, twitter feed, or linkedin profile?

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