Retroactive Listening: Perspectives on Music & Technology

Technology has not only continually transformed the structure of the physical world, it has also radically altered the shape and sound of our audible world, which has lead to incredible, and sometimes questionable, modifications in our lives. An idealistic critic might call this modification progress; an evolutionary biologist might call it mutation.

Edited by Louis J. Battaglia and Produced by Sarah Zupko

So here you are. It's 2010 and, as you read this, your assiduously info-scanning eyes are quite possibly ablaze with the reflection of an electronic screen from one of your portable electronic devices, which simultaneously pumps the soothing sounds of your choice into your sponge-like ears. Your multi-tasking, multi-existing presence -- no longer dependent upon an actual presence -- is all made possible by your ability to plug into an invisible ether-like network that the Ancient Greeks might have mistaken for their cosmos.

Modern-day thinkers have provided us with other equally grandiose names for it, like the technium or the singularity.

Regardless of which conceptual tag you choose to link examples of modern technology to the broader technological womb we all are cooing within, there is little doubt that this whirring, crackling, pulsating, electric womb that now encompasses our collective being has changed absolutely everything.

Take those soothing sounds emanating from your portable electronic device, for instance. Music, the thing Nietzsche wrote, "life would be an error" without, is now for many the audio scenery found floating along their daily commute across the information superhighway. As a thing in itself, music has become so tightly integrated into the restless technological undertow of today that it is getting harder and harder to distinguish between the two. While it is music's symbiotic -- some might say synonymous -- relationship with technology that makes it a perfect microcosm to illustrate technology's broader impact on our lives, the "Retroactive Listening: Perspectives on Music and Technology" series is instead concerned with a set of different, but equally pressing questions. Questions, inspired by Nietzsche's 19th century words, that seek to uncover technology's impact on the music in our 21st century lives.

For instance, what exactly is the nature of the role that technology has played in changing the music we create and consume? In a modern context, has technology been a liberating force, unshackling the constraints that limited our access to other people's music and our ability to produce our own, not to mention getting it "out there"? Has technology stimulated a tidal wave of creativity or has it simply flooded the market with subpar music? Was our first instinct correct, to wave from the safety of our shore-like P2P networks to the once titanic music industry as it drowned in the technological sea change? Or is the technological revolution proving to be a whirlpool-like force that is somehow slowly sucking music of its most precious, most fleeting value?

Is this why droves of people are tripping over one another at flea markets and garage sales to (re)build their library-like vinyl collections?

The "Retroactive Listening" series is our attempt here at PopMatters to resolves these questions, or at least provide a forum in which the concerned parties can take stock on the matter. The group of writers and thinkers presented in this series are from a broad spectrum of backgrounds, each with a different point of view on the matter and each with a distinct entry point into the debate over how technology has influenced music and our lives. While the views ultimately expressed in this series may not always reflect the opinions of the PopMatters staff, we are impressed with the writers who stepped forward to tackle these daunting, hard-to-answer-questions.

Some of their pieces follow social trends, like Emily Becker's "MP3s, the Death of the Record Store, and the Birth of the Closet Hipster", which tracks how independent record store-centered, High Fidelity-style music snobbery gradually diffused itself out across the internet and into some unexpected places. Joseph Fisher's piece, "iPod and Alienation: Loneliness Is a Cool iPod; Happiness Is a Warm Album Cover" also focuses on the social impact of the MP3, but in a more personal light that expresses the writer's own doubts about the utopian -- as opposed to critical -- consensus that currently surrounds our file-sharing crazed culture. Kirby Fields echoes this concern in his "File Sharing" piece by pointing out that there is a difference between sharing files and sharing music.

History provided the inspiration for several other pieces, including Jonathan De Souza's, "Bone Flutes, Pianos, and iPods: Notes on Technology, Music, and Embodiment", which extends the examination of music and technology's tangled relationship back 35,000 years. Fast forwarding tens of millennia, Jay Somerset's "AM Gold '82" found the single year of 1982 as a definitive instance when technology initiated a monumental shift in music history, while Laura Schnitker's "Indie in the Age of the Internet" charts the paradoxical rise of independent music and offers insight into its changing place in today's world.

Other pieces hone in on the technologies that make music, as opposed to those which distribute it. David M. Kammerer's "'Rockit' Science: Eighties Instrumental Pop in the Brave New [Digital] World" and Tara Rodgers's "Listening to the RCA Electronic Music Synthesizer as New Technology, 1955" both focus on specific music-making technology in a particular time and place and how that technology opened the door to new musical styles and entirely new dimensions in sound.

A handful of writer's make the compelling case that "Retroactive Listening" isn't really about music and/or technology, but instead its about us, and how the technology/music dialectic has changed us. Eric Casero's "Mental Machine Music: The Musical Mind in the Digital Age" argues that real cognitive changes have taken place inside our minds since the analog age gave way to the digital age. Karen Snell's "The Ever-Changing 'Technical Aesthetic' and its Influence on Music Teaching and Learning" offers parallel observations based on her time spent conducting pedagogical case studies in the music classroom.

Our hope when we conceived this series was to collect solid pieces that critically addressed the pros and cons of technology's impact on music's consumption, production, and distribution. To do this, we sought out a diverse array of perspectives in order to cover the full range of this issue. We didn't care if writer's chose to look at MIDI and MP3s or bone flutes and boomboxes; we wanted to hear from everybody about everything.

What we have for you here, then, is a series of smart, focused essays on the critical moments within musical history, those moments in time when the acts of listening, performing, and experiencing music became something new entirely. While the pieces don't form a unified chorus regarding the positive versus negative impact of technology on music, the writer's all from the onset shared a Nietzscheian appreciation for music and, in the end, come to at least one similar conclusion. Technology has not only continually transformed the structure of the physical world, it has also radically altered the shape and sound of our audible world, which has lead to incredible, and sometimes questionable, modifications in our lives. An idealistic critic might call this modification progress; an evolutionary biologist might call it mutation. We hope this series will provide you with the necessary tools to construct your own conclusion.

-- Louis J. Battaglia

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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