Modulations (1998)

by Josh Jones


The World is Chaos

Modulations looks at the hyperreal world of global rave, house, trip-hop, and experimental electronic culture, featuring a cast of the most revered DJs and producers, journalists and fans-on-the-street, stars and some lesser-known artists. Director Iara Lee (Synthetic Pleasures) has done well to provide a nearly all-encompassing look at this much misunderstood musical revolution. The film includes a brief history of electronic music through interviews with such “founding fathers” as Robert Moog, Karl-Heinz Stockhausen, members of German avant-garde band Can, and “musique concrete” inventor Pierre Henry; as well as a nod to the father of musical minimalism, John Cage, who is presented in archival footage.

Modulations begins with a statement from Genesis P-Orridge, of seminal electronic/noise act Throbbing Gristle, who says, “The world was not meant to be good, bad, black, white, 1 and 2, 1 and 0. It’s not binary, it’s chaos.” Accordingly, the film proceeds to take us on a chaotic, roller coaster ride through the world of dance music culture and postmodern musical experimentation, simulating the virtual experience of raves, with shaky, fast-motion video montage, laser effects, and a nonstop mix of music representative of the variety of sounds coming out of the different electronic music scenes.

cover art


Director: Iara Lee

(Caipirinha Productions)

With all this energy, the film and its many interviewees sometimes seem to lack direction, which may be appropriate to their stated intentions, to disassemble the world’s cultural constructs and piece them back together in pastiches of beats, samples, and “acid lines.” Music journalist Calvin Bush describes the dilemma of such disassembly when he says, “It’s all moving so fast, all we can do is enjoy the ride. I don’t think any of us know where we’re going.”

Just so, Modulations moves at a maddening pace (don’t see this film if you’re prone to motion sickness), assaulting the viewer with a mix of images and beats that is quite impossible to interpret in one sitting. The film undoubtedly delivers the goods, the inside scoop on dance and electronic music, but often at the expense of sense for the uninitiated, who might understandably feel intimidated. Some of the interviewed artists and DJs themselves often appear to be caught up in something they can’t quite define. Celebrated junglist Roni Size comments, “It’s never one thing, it’s always something else. It’s always changing.” Some of these many “things” are displayed in the film’s array of subgenres, house, rave, jungle, breakbeat, and the commercially named “electronica.”

The film celebrates this diversity, and occasionally, tries to line it up. But, as Talvin Singh, an Indian drum and bass producer who melds traditional Indian sounds with jungle beats, says, “It’s just noise, it’s just sounds, but organized, organized noise, organized sound.” The concept of sound as different from music is key. The misanthropic dance act Future Sound of London reject the label “musicians,” calling themselves “collage artists” instead. And “musique concrete” artist Pierre Henry sums up his philosophy when he describes electronic music as “a sort of alchemy that doesn’t exist in orchestral music.” Always changing, alchemy, organized noise/sound, collage: All of these descriptions point to the postmodernist idea of the current culture as a culture of pastiche. Here the pastiche is comprised of sound: artists recycle bits and pieces of sampled pop culture (old-school hip-hop beats, movie dialogue, disco records) run through sequencers and mutated into electronic dance music (or “techno”).

Many of these artists and DJs are also responsible for bringing together the disparate “scenes” and cultures that accompany the different musics. The term “rave” encompasses any subgenres that become incorporated in the large parties for which the music is named. Raves merge the predominantly white “techno” scene with the mainly black house and hip-hop scenes, seemingly breaking down racial and class barriers. For example, one important moment in the film, and in the genesis of electronic dance music, is Afrika Bambaata’s re-rendering of Kraftwork in his innovative single “Planet Rock,” which, according to music writer Kodwo Eshun, brought together the distant worlds of Berlin and The Bronx.

And yet, despite such idealism and hope for social change, according to Lee’s documentary, one of the defining aspects of the dance music scene is hedonism, the complete abandonment of mundane or political cares for an ecstatic state of partying. As DJ Derrick Carter says, after all the shit you have to put up with during the week, “you need at least a good six hours to just dance.” From this perspective, the dance music scene is just one big global party to which everyone is invited, provided you can afford it.

This is a crucial element all but lost in Modulations’ extensive and celebratory name-dropping: class. Almost any discussion of the high expense of this party is conspicuously omitted. Although the filmmakers seem to have visited many notable dance music scenes — from Detroit to London to Tokyo to New York to Berlin — it’s hard not to notice that all of these scenes are located in “first-world” nations. The United States, Europe, and Japan are presented as “where it’s at,” ignoring the rest of the world’s role in this technological revolution. This is perhaps especially ironic, given that “electronica” and dance music are posited repeatedly by its purveyors as global. To some degree, these musics are global, for there are huge raves in South American and African countries, as well as the rest of Asia. But these parties don’t make the cut in Modulations.

“So what?” you say, “it’s just music.” Calvin Bush would seem to concur, when he observes that dance music culture “was a hedonistic culture to begin with, and it acquired more cultural significance than its original participants ever expected.” German producer Alec Empire complains about the high expectations for dance music’s cultural significance, saying, “At the end of everything, it’s just a stupid party.” He observes, “It was boredom that led to fascism in the ‘20’s and everyone’s so bored now. No one wants to change anything.” If this comparison seems extreme or morbid, it does suggest that a consideration of dance culture might do well to include some political and historical analysis. To that end, we might take seriously the observations of DJ Spooky, who asks, “How do you get people to create their culture? You pull away all sorts of memory.” He sees this taking place in dance culture, a “culture of amnesia” where, he says, “No one wants to think about historical references.”

While Modulations mostly steers clear of such ideological reviews, perhaps rightly so, it does take note of some of the culture’s revolutionary aspects, which are, after all, about the class distinctions rehearsed daily by the entertainment industries. As shown here, one of the appeals of electronic music is its “bedroom studio” accessibility: anyone who can acquire the technology, some of which is relatively inexpensive, can create his or her own sound, and in some cases, become a “world class” DJ. The high-tech equipment used to create dance music is revolutionary because in many cases, it has given many musicians and DJs in low income urban areas, like Detroit, the opportunity to express themselves and rally support on an international stage.

As some interviewees talk about the equipment — the Roland 303 (“acid” machine) and the 909 drum machine — the assembly-line nature of some techno music is foregrounded, even going so far as to show a clip, in fast-motion of course, of synthesizers being assembled in factories. This aspect of the music is assimilated into the film’s discourse of pastiche. Dance music don Carl Cox rightly divines the cyclical nature of house music when he says, “It’s all come full circle, it’s all disco cut-ups, cut-ups of disco songs.” Similarly, ambient junglist L.T.J. Bukem comments that “all of the sounds [in jungle music] basically come from the ‘70s.” The film argues that electronic music is essentially postmodern, joining past musics and sampled soundbites with and as the sounds of new musical technology.

Emulating this aesthetic, the film provides intense video and audio montages that are as exciting as they may be disorienting. Coldcut, of hip-hop experimentalists Ninja Tune, offers this by way of interpretation: “It’s the idea that everything is everything, everything relates to everything else.” He then quotes Heraclitus, saying, “As above, so below.” Indeed, Modulations demonstrates that dance music does mirror the dominant culture: like late 20th century democratic capitalism, it makes differences seem relative and sells a fantasy of peace and unity without ever offering practical solutions to historical divisions and conflicts. But then again, it’s just music.

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