Sunday, 20 May 2018

What we are supposed to sound like....


The discourse on music's eminently different two roles, one functional, the other well above and beyond functional, dates back millennia.

The Harmonic Scale, Franchino Gaffurio, 1480 
Even when musical scales were defined and explained in ancient times with presumed, or sometimes vaguely empirical, ratios between orbits of celestial objects, music had at the same time a recognised functional role of entertainment, and a spiritual role with even cosmic connections...

Fast forward to contemporary electronic music... and we have something that, perhaps more than any other musical genre in history, abounds with cosmic references. Even vast sub-genres like space ambient or fusions like space rock are making direct references to that outer realm, which is immediately giving such music a higher purpose.

Apart from such philosophical and historic aspects, the democratisation of music making has been an unprecedented phenomenon in our history.

One is not thinking of the availability of an improvised woodwind instrument and the tunes that any shepherd could produce at any time during our many past millennia. Making music at this level and having a few mates around to perhaps listen to it was a possibility for anyone with any background in any historic era.

Trident Studios in the '70s
However, the democratisation of cutting-edge and professional music production has been brought along by affordable electronic instruments and studio equipment. Only very few decades ago a musician had to command a very respectable budget in order to produce something that could stand up in the market of mainstream or more elitist genres. The process of getting the end product onto that market has also changed radically in recent years, but this is an entirely different topic.

Apart from the technological and financial aspects, the actual process of music making has shifted toward a state of affairs that vastly stimulates both inspiration and the creation of well-polished end products - even eminently improvised ones. The end products no longer require in-depth knowledge of music theory, many rhythmic and harmonic aspects are taken care of, in real time, by the algorithms at work in the gizmos or computer apps populating the home studio.

But let's firmly and rapidly side-step any polemic on how technology helps talent-less people create music. This is a topic that, with all its fundamental factual, conceptual and historical errors, keeps turning up like rheumatic pain. It is similar to what happened to the replacement of dark rooms with digital dark rooms, similar arguments were and are endlessly made about how it brings the death of artistic photography. It did not.

AKAI MPC-X
What technology does immensely help with nowadays is the compositional process itself. Hugely sophisticated, whilst affordable, gadgets can radically change the creative workflow. Again, as the old saying goes, anybody can do it nowadays. Well, again, let's side-step this for a moment.

One of the more abstract effects of this technology (from superb MPCs to Ableton Push to full-blown music workstations with KARMA algorithmic composition) is the shift in our perception of how what music created in such ways should be like.

When Billboard magazine, of quite some pedigree, managed to judge Gary Numan's latest album as "not electronic enough", it unwillingly created a case study in this perceptual shift. Billboard fundamentally misjudged the concept album despite its content, because the stereotype of what electronic music should sound like has been drastically shifted - and encompasses only a few very specific sub-genres.

Ade Fenton & Gary Numan
Numan's album was around 95% created and finalised with electronic instruments, according to both the artist and the producer, Ade Fenton. It certainly sounded eminently electronic, superbly futuristic, and as it happens, loaded with actual meaning and messages.

However, it only sounded eminently electronic to those who did not drastically limit the scope and extent of electronic music to typical results created with drum and sample loops, something that aforementioned creative tools excel in.

Electronic music, from its early days and years of imaginative demolishing of all boundaries, has ironically become a semantic tag for just a few very narrow genres and sub-genres.

If one looks at what is included in the category of electronic music, then it becomes clear that in our perception this music has largely lost its non-functional roles.

Dance music, and all its sub-genres, is making us... well, dance and have a good time. Even the not so mainstream, but abundant, ambient and chillout electronica is here to helps us relax, well, chill out...

When talking to creators of mainstream electronica, it is also becoming obvious how even the concept of composing with a primary intent, hence setting an objective in terms of what the music expresses or describes, is becoming an alien one or something never heard of. In best case, it is seen as "old-fashioned".

Whilst both technology and its users are creating, among the inevitable ocean of mediocrities, gems of mainstream electronica, we really are increasingly pushing traditional composition and traditional musical values into, at best, marginalised and quite niche sub-genres.

Vangelis in his former London studio
Traditional composition here is not meant along the lines of doodling with a piano and taking out pencil and paper with staves. It is meant as approaching the task of creating a piece of music with actual intent, even when merely improvising on our gadgets... and keeping focus on what the music is meant to express.

This, though, requires command of music theory, and examples of supreme masters with no such formal knowledge are rare - let's just say, there are not many Vangelis-like phenomena in electronic music...

Just saying this makes one sound hopelessly elitist, because the ways in which we can create electronic music nowadays has distorted our entire vision on what the creative process is, and what it is supposed to come up with. Electronic music that is released on, heaven forbid, concept albums, is deemed old-fashioned. Undoubtedly, the excesses of progressive rock have made the term "concept album" an almost pejorative one in the eyes and ears of many punk and post-punk generations of music creators and consumers.

It is ironic though, that in the most limitless genre, huge proportion of electronic music is created nowadays with merely its functional role in mind. This pretty much drives our definitions and expectations of what electronica "must" be.

Some niche sub-genres are either unbearably academic (continuing the eminently experimental traditions), or labelled with the by now pejorative-sounding new age term. Latter has anyway become a bucket not just for pretentious and often ludicrous "spiritual" electronica, but also for just about any music that happens to be a fusion of orchestral, ethnic, traditional and electronic. In the same way that progressive rock has eventually become a bucket for everything that didn't fit into rigid rock sub-genres, new age has become the same for electronic music.

Nils Frahm
The perversity of our shifted preconceptions and perceptions of what electronic music is supposed to sound like are made even more evident when the unparalleled pioneers or novel acts of far-out electronic music are pigeonholed into the new age genre.

Tangerine Dream ending up in that category? Really? Harold Budd, Kitaro and even Vangelis? Olafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm? It is simply tragicomic.

However, like the unstoppable and quite uncoordinated  changes of ever-changing human languages, this movement shows the shifts and currents at work. It is absolutely commendable that our drum boxes and sequencers allow anybody to lay down musical ideas at any moment, in a vein that the great composers of yesteryear would have given an arm and a leg for.

Improvisations are no longer lost forever, and can be the origins of major and complex works. Technology really is here to help, as long as the human maintains creative control.

It just remains painfully ironic how the vast new abilities and powers of this astounding and still new musical Universe are achieving the opposite effect: instead of increasingly leveraging the possibilities created by the unprecedented technology behind this music, we are increasingly limited in our rapidly narrowing perceptions of what this truly limitless sonic Universe "should" sound like. And latter is confined to the functional role of music, despite its new abilities to take us beyond the party moods, ambiental wanderings and relaxation attempts.

One has to wonder what the early pioneers would think, if they could witness what this phenomenal new genre of music has become in our aesthetic definitions and expectations.

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