Electronic Music

The Invader and Infiltrator

by Timothy Gabriele

8 February 2010

Photo (partial) by
©Caesar Sebastion found on Caesar Sebastion.com 

Unhome Music, Other Place Music

Unhome Music, Other Place Music

A specter is haunting the global village, the specter of a century of recorded sound realizing itself.

Electronic music has always been seen as an underbelly. Say that it’s the type of music that you like the most and faces whinge and grimace. This is because electronic music has historically been unhome music, other place music.  Despite this, it is recognized everywhere.  Electronic music (from its advent in noise and concrète) has been around for nearly as long as sound has been recorded, but it’s somehow still stigmatized and thought of as a fringe phenomenon.

The Theremin lit up “Good Vibrations”. The Beatles utilized Moog on Abbey Road and tape loops on “Tomorrow Never Knows”. Disneyland enlisted Perrey-Kingsley for their Main Street Parade. Call signals for the BBC and the nightly news have long been the product of electronic production. Genres from hip-hop to prog to R&B have incorporated synthesizers from time to time. Innumerable teenage lives have been soundtracked by the rudimentary blips of Nintendo, Sega Genesis, and computer MIDIs. Programmed music features into ringtones and horror soundtracks. Also, of course, there are the occasional patches of electronic-based mainstream crossovers, culturally accepted but usually seen as little more than fads or novelties: Italo-disco, NRG, synthpop, freestyle, dance-pop, industrial, big beat, grime, electropop, etc.

Music made with electronics constitutes perhaps the broadest sonic category, because it is a genre delineated by instrumentation alone rather than style. Furthermore, the nature of the music’s instrumentation allows for the representation, simulation, or manipulation of any other sound. By unnaturally inhabiting the whole of music history, electronic music can widen its scope to include just about anything.

Yet it is still thought of as a singular phenomenon, albeit one that is either too simple or too complex, too arcane or too direct, too puerile or too cerebral, too course or too academic from most audiences. Electronic sounds thus exist on at least two planes. On one level, they are common and saturate our most quotidian of listening environments. On another level, they are unwelcome because they do not fit comfortably into the Promethean rockist/poptimist narrative. Electronic music is laterally integrated, but differentially excluded.

Electronic music’s disconnection from folk (root word “people”) art poses an ontological conundrum. If recorded audio was supposed to be a capture of history, the trapping of live time long after it was dead, what is manipulated sound? What to make of sound that seems to be occurring at several different times at once?  If Edison conceived of the Phonograph as a kind of time machine, what kind of device is one that lays time on its side and distorts a presence so much that it creates something entirely new, something that never existed before?

Music made through a studio or a sampler is liminal music, music that exists between the source material and what comes through the speakers when the filtration devices are done with it. It’s perhaps for this reason that electronic music, which is heavily reliant on studios and samplers, has often been cited as an optimal gateway to altered states of consciousness.The voices of electronic music are frequently inbetween ontological destinations, stuck in an illusion, a dream, another dimension, a higher plane, a fantasy, a new life, outer space, inner space, or the future. Matter can become immaterial in an electronic recording, just as time can become out of joint.

Yet manipulation of preexisting audio is not the only way that electronic music disengages time. It also does so by inventing its own time, the rhythms of a clock beating at 140BPM and tied to an 808 bass metronome (or a four-on-the-floor). The unrelenting repetition of techno is a simple, hard-swallowed conceit that suggests that one can get trapped in simple patterns for ten-minute plus stretches and emerge with little perception of why the rest of the world does not operate in this manner. On the dance floor, one becomes a part of this machinal process and surrenders to it, performing the labor of the drum or the arpeggio through anti-gestural reflexive movements. The body converts itself into a cyborgian presence, an extension of the machine’s impulses and agitations.

Rock, being tied as it is to the natural, is body dyschronic. The listener of rock music might feel temporally displaced, but not lost in history. He or she is instead lost in their own lifespan. Rock confronts fixed sensations attached to distinct age groups. It can alternately feel juvenile (scatological or regressive), adolescent (angsty or passionate), college-aged (heady or existentialist), or adult contemporary (settled and slightly disengaged). Rock can be a fountain of youth, but it’s not the fountain of growth.

Electronic music views the body and mind as systems and/or vessels, fixed in some ways, but always capable of being hacked or adapted to new demands. Its itinerary of infinitely programmable possibilities makes it a scene that is simultaneously heterotopian and rhizomatic. Its various entry points pledge that the arc of history is not set for one course alone. It promises that we will not be trapped in the Darwinian nightmare forever.

For this reason, electronic music has long been a music associated with futures, even during the various times when it was busy stratifying present zeitgeists. It has since moved into an era where it is seen as a dyschronic series of reiterations. Every electro-pop revival is automatically branded an ‘80s throwback. Other dated terms that have been popping up in the past decade- Balaeric, Italo, ‘Ardkore, New Beat- have been applied to musics with only a passing resemblance to their corresponding predecessors.

Electronic music is condemned to be a difference engine, perpetually too far ahead of culture for it to catch up, even as we near a century since Luigi Russolo’s “The Art of Noises”. With history at its end and the lingering status quo an inevitability, electronic music can only be steam-powered without the propulsion of mass movement behind it. It will remain at the margins where it can be made invisible to those who choose not to look, hiding in the clutter of remix culture feeding back unto itself.

Fukuyama’s Cornell mentor Allan Bloom once said that “The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity, but the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities, that makes it seem inconceivable that other ways are viable, that removes the sense that there is an outside.” An inevitability will find every criticism leveled against it to be invalid. The inevitability is deified in the eyes and ears of the faithful. 

When ontology becomes plagued by this much certitude, it becomes necessary to create new realities in art, dream, and fantasy, ones which reject the resolute narrative arcs and their supposed naturalness.In order to dethrone a dominant reality, one needs to become a ghost of the future extricating an anchored present and throwing time out of joint. A specter is haunting the global village, the specter of a century of recorded sound realizing itself.

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