[12 August 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The advent of the Danish Institute of Electronic Music in 1986 came out of the Danish Music Council and, in particular, the council’s chairman Prof. Finn Egeland Hansen. The idea was to bring more attention to and build the reputation of the history (and future) of Danish electronic music, especially since it was, at the time, somewhat dwarfed by the EMS studio in Sweden.
The DIEM did come, however, at a curious and interesting time in music production history, and 25 Years DIEM: Electronic Music Produced at DIEM 1987-2012 uses that as its starting point. In the late-‘80s, as DIEM was getting going, the shift to compact discs has also marked a shift towards from analog to digital production. Rather than dive headlong into the future of recording, the construction of the studio space at DIEM reflected a bridge between the two, employing both analog and digital equipment together as much to accommodate as many kinds of electronic composers as to maintain a foothold in history as they moved forward.
This idea of the past clashing with the future informs the ingenious way in which 25 Years DIEM has been compiled. This 2-disc set does not run chronologically, but rather has two chronologies move back and forth between one another—the curators call this part of the “Forward/Backward Principle”. The first disc moves from tracks created at the start of DIEM—like Anker Fjeld Simonsen’s “Oktav III” from 1988, which leads off the disc—to modern composition like Jonas R. Kirkegaard’s 2012 piece “802” and back again. So we get the past and the present, but the past moves forward, from Simonsen in 1988 to Carl Bergstrom-Nielson in 1989 to Per Norgard in 1991, while the present moves in reverse from Kirkegaard to Band Ane in 2011 to Jonas Olsen/Morten Riis in 2010 and so on.
As we vacillate between the past coming to meet us and the present drifting away, we do get to make curious connections between sounds old and new. By the second disc, past and present have virtually met in the middle and the chronology muddles even more. It allows us to see how the skittering, industrial sounds of Fuzzy’s 1989 piece “Electric Gardens and their Surroundings” meshes with Puzzleweasel and Richard Devine’s 2008 piece “Mad Bonce”. The former sounds at first like a futuristic body shop with all the mechanical scuffs and buzzes that go with it, but it builds to a nearly danceable alignment of glitches and bleeps, a fascinating orchestra of otherworldly sounds. It sounds exploratory, like its finding it feet, and you can hear how Puzzleweasel and Divine, informed by a history including Fuzzy, make a much more streamlined version of those fiery textures. We also see, on disc two, how the spacy, angular ambience of Michael Nyvang’s “Collage IV, Corona” from 1996 informs Vectral’s far more expansive ambient drone from 2007, “AC-3”.
For fans of electronic music, or those fascinated by musical history, 25 Years DIEM, from the deeply informative liner notes on down, is a great document, one that establishes its context clearly and tells it story with clarity. That context aside, though, the music itself can be hit or miss. It is part of an interesting history, yes, but as it’s connected to an institute, it can on occasion feel like too much of an academic exercise. Birgitte Alsted’s “Zu versuchen, die Fragen” is the longest piece here, and starts as a skittering, compelling exercise in auditory space, but it never quite builds to anything more over its 16-plus minutes. Hans Hansen’s “Passaics Monumenter” seems to want to look at static hiss in a similarly investigative way, but he never quite gets past its irritation, so the whole thing sounds like a lamp buzzing in the next room over.
There’s nothing in 25 Years DIEM that’s out and out bad—it’s a perfectly fine soundtrack for whatever you may be doing around the house—but none of the individual compositions can outshine the whole set as a historical document. The story of DIEM is a fascinating one, one worth learning about through this collection, even if electronic music—both from these composers and others—may create better sounds elsewhere.