Electronic Music: The Invader and Infiltrator

It should be clear to even the most casual observer of postmodern society that, as William Shakespeare, Philip Dick, and Jacques Derrida uttered, time is out of joint. The 21st century seems thus far to be a regurgitation of the 20th, its bad and worse behaviors remediated by recycling, curing war with more war and yielding irascible greed with unfettered free markets. The past continues to haunt us, showing up at every moment we seem poised to move forward. In many ways, the media phenomenons of the 2008 US Presidential election, Barack Obama and Sarah Palin, seemed like an attempt to break free; American society’s attempt to prove it could do something new, even though the new was sanctioned by and officiated by the old.

In addition, mass media has become so systemically unstable that its individual pieces can be conjoined at will without chronology, context, consternation, or concern for causation. The fast edits.The instant downloads. The Twitter pulse of shared consciousness thinking that the machinations of proffered choice are autonomy, freedom. The immediate access to so many parts of culture through so many channels relieves us of the burden of taking anything on in full. It’s like splaying millions of puzzle pieces across the floor. Eventually, you may find two that fit together nicely even if the picture thus fitted doesn’t quite match. You’re building your own story, but you’re missing out on the larger picture.

If we all live, as DJ Spooky posits, in remix culture, it seems reasonable that we may also lack the apparatus to prevent us from consistently remixing the world back into our image. Thus, remixing without structural intent serves only to reinforce our own current understandings and privileges. Thankfully, the critical complex has helped some of us keep culture fresh, even as the absorbers of culture have repeatedly fallen under the claustrophobic spell of a recursive intellectual model of late capitalism, rockism, and poptimism as the end of history. It’s only through proclaiming the validity of everything that everything can be kept on the market, leaving most of us to default to whatever is popular and whatever requires the least amount of cultural friction while the long tail wags the rest of us into disenfranchisement or negligence.

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Electronic music in particular has always been caught in a ripple of disjoined ontology. By its popular presentation as music that is “not real”, electronic sounds have been allowed to occupy and permeate spaces focused on alterity, from the fringes of academia (Stockhausen, Cage, Schaeffer, Niblock, et al.) to the disposal heap of exotica (the kitsch of ’60s and ’70s moog outfits, the ’90s PoMo artists that sampled them). The early branding of electronic sound as not only unreal but unnatural allowed its usage to remain surrogate from art’s deluded stake in realism. Furthermore, as a new induction into Marshall McLuhan’s electric media, electronic music was now set to become an integral part of the central nervous system and advance alterations to corporeal and cognitive human hardware (rave’s practice of inuring tunes for the greatest chemical affect demonstrated this at times with scientific acuteness).

These in-sounds from way-out for a long time represented what Freud dubbed ‘the uncanny’. It was shockingly strange in all the ways that it was familiar. It’s no mistake that this otherness was represented often in the early days of electronic sound by the Theremin, the first major recognizable electronic instrument. The Theremin not only produced spooky noises, such as those notably embraced by Bernard Hermann in his score for The Day the Earth Stood Still. It also mimicked a female soprano. In the process of replicating the coos of a birth-giver’s voice, the Theremin set upon a course to create a new mechanical mother, a Maschinemensch for the human race.

Subsequent to this rebirth, electronic music’s subsequent status as invader and infiltrator, an artificial intelligence secondary to the “purity” of country, blues, and jazz derived forms, has never been lived down. From the Theremin on down to auto-tune, Western culture seems unable to escape the creeping suspicion that we’re being replaced by all this technology, that eventually all of what we know to be human will dissipate. Never mind that almost all major label music is adorned with enough ProTools tinkering to be completely machine-incubated.

A deterioration of homo superiority would also promise an end to the luxuries those of us on the top of our currently established human hierarchies enjoy. If we all lose our voice and are forced to sing the body electric, then we would then only be able to communicate through our material interactions with the detritus we’ve created. We could not longer pretend to speak from the heart or ruse the world into accepting the innate superiorities and convenient faiths of our invented institutions and orthodoxies.

However, isn’t remix/postmodern culture just the transformation of existing signs and symbols into the praxis of communication? If Guy Debord was right that all that was once lived has now transformed into representation, our current worldview is a remix of what is allowed to pass through to our personal political economy. We’re a composite of representations, a simulacrum deviated enough to dispossess us of the agency to curate meaning, but close enough to the original for our recitations to systemically advance and reinforce the continued relevance of the dominant ideologies we’ve assimilated.

The popular view of history is that, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and The Last Man saw this arc resolving in the viral outgrowth of Western liberal (and tacitly Capitalist) democracies. Yet, a different arc could be drawn. One that leads from a time of relative stability between hunter-gatherer tribes to a time when mankind stands on the precipice of a multifocal extinction from an unsustainable production cycle. If this is natural progression, perhaps the best thing to do is to welcome the unnatural.

If evolution is no longer about survival of the fittest and, as Devo liked to point out, sometimes the strong will survive and the weak will survive as well, maybe evolution continues not through the natural course of history and chronology unfolding, but through choice, through a challenge to the our intrinsic qualities of competitive self-interest. In other words, a fight against the survival instinct that seems to be threatening our survival. Marx saw the “social formation” as the “closing chapter of the prehistoric stage of humanity”. So perhaps post-prehistoric man can only grow when he ceases to see his current status as a temporal inevitability, when he disturbs “the existing order’s uninterrupted discourse about itself” (Debord).

Electronic music’s radicalism has always been the radicalism of form rather than intent. It’s not that revolution can not be sung in electronic tones, but electronic music’s alterity precludes it from simply reconstructing familiar narratives and mythologies like overthrow and the reassignment of power. Its voice is defined by an engine of difference, coming across as either completely alien or substantially disembodied.

It should be no surprise then that electronic music’s most populist forms took off from the cultural margins, from within scenes that were already spectral, like the AIDS-ravaged black and queer community that spurred the advent of house music. The music from that era does little to capture the community in intimate photorealist detail, but it does say something about those forgotten disintegrated faces, which were already foreign and exogenous to heteronormative culture.

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.