The Re-envisioning of Electronic Music | Shantanu Singh

Shantanu Singh

I think there isn’t enough experimentation in music as a whole. Considering all the things that can be explored with computers and programming software, what we’re hearing from the music industry is quite disappointing… [And] the idea that people can only accept simple things is an insult. I believe techno music should endorse new thinking and new approaches to what can be done with sound and rhythm.

– Jeff Mills in Dan Sicko’s book “Techno Rebels” (1999)

Electronic music sees before it the same moment that, for instance, Rock and Jazz have seen and been at the helm of – the ‘knob-tiddlers’ of today have the chance of creating the ‘divine’ music, the sound that takes the leap of faith, hand in hand, for the listener as well as the creator.

Arguably, this has been the defining characteristic of the genre even before German music theorist Herbert Eimert published his seminal article titled ‘What is Electronic Music[i]. Eimert’s own time was one where pioneering music composer Karlheinz Stockhausen was creating patterns with simple sinus tones.[ii] In so much so that the name of ‘Electronic music’ is a result of the disagreements of between Stockhausen and German acoustician Meyer-Eppler and a series of lectures, radio shows and events conducted by Eimert himself, the genre took its initial steps in between basements of Parisian post offices and the legendary Studio for Electronic Music at Cologne[iii].

Elsewhere, academicians, composers and technicians were teeming with equipment to get the genre going. Japanese innovators such as Ikutaro Kakehashi at Ace Tone and Tsutomu Katoh at ‘Korg’ created the first drum machines. The former went on to establish the famous Roland Corporation and gave birth to the myriad of synthesizers and drum machines which ultimately contributed to the initial advancements of the genre. At the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, composers such as Milton Babbit and Egyptian Halim El-Dabh were experimenting on the RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer, the first programmable electronic synthesizer developed at the center itself.

Jeff Mills
Image: Jeff Mills

But it is not to be ignored that the philosophy of the genre had already laid down the groundwork long before these innovations took shape. In 1907, Italian pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni had penned his ‘Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music’ where he expressed the limitation of the present music system and envisioned an end of Instrumental music altogether[iv].  Regardless, these were among those many others minds and bodies behind the development of sound, theory, technology and equipment that birthed Electronic music. When talking of breaking away with tradition, Electronic music had opened not a door but a whole new dimension for composers. As composer and sound artist Robert Worby notes:

Electronic music proved to be the ideal medium for the application of the unifying principles of total serialism. All musical parameters – pitch, duration, volume, timbre and the location of sounds in space – could be precisely delineated and controlled. The pitch of a sound could be specified as an exact frequency, in cycles per second, rather than the label by which a note was named – B flat, C sharp or whatever; duration could be measured down to a tiny fraction of a second and the volume of a sound could be enumerated in decibels. But perhaps most importantly, new sounds could be composed from scratch by the fusion of sine-waves, the ‘atoms’ from which sounds are constructed; sounds that had never been heard before, and for which there were no names, came to life in the studio.[v]

In terms of the effect on its listeners, Electronic music faced mixed reactions. British music commentator Norman Lebrecht notes that Stockhausen listeners often associated Electronic music productions with a ‘fantastic dream world’ experience akin to music from ‘a different star or outer space’[vi].Starkly contrasting was the polemic of Berlin musicologist Carl Dahlhaus who banished Electronic music to a lowly niche,calling it dead and ‘the affair of a small, unimportant group of sectarians’[vii]. Ultimately, for Babbit, Elliot Schwartz writes, Electronic music posed the question not of “What are the limits of the human performer?” but rather “What are the limits of human hearing?”[viii]

Nevertheless, what essentially guided their collective conscience was the excitement of birthing the new era of music – the ‘music of the future’ being its clarion call. And this ideal has stood as the defining characteristic of the genre. It did not change even as far down to when Derrick May, the pioneer of Detroit’s Electronic music scene in the late 80’s, speaking to the city’s famous WJLB radio introduced the idea of Electronic music as ‘education for the future[ix]’.

Karlheinz Stockhausen
Image: Karlheinz Stockhausen

But never before has this peculiar characteristic has been understood as a ‘great responsibility’ upon the genre’s artists. Responsibility, I say, because at a time where the genre has become the main offering of major cultural festivals and the object of encounter in daily life, there is a satiation in the style and sound of music and sound that the listeners are being introduced to. This is mainly due to problems that the genre has faced before too – the problem of entrenching it in the idea of sales, marketing, what’s in/what’s out of the mainstream and finally, of commercialization. Regurgitation of the same sound – the statistically proven ‘successful’ sound – over and over is somehow coming to replace the genre’s main tenets solely because it has done well on banal platforms such as radio waves and online sales charts.

To experiment is to open oneself to failure, if not complete discouragement as a musician. To demand more from the genre is to be elitist or snobbish.

This responsibility to deliver, yet again, the promise of Electronic music as the ‘future music’ is incumbent upon the innovators, producers, listeners and musicians who want to be etched into the ever developing archaeology of Electronic music. And the question here goes beyond mere technicalities of ‘who is doing what’ – it’s a question of when that ‘what’ is different from the rest.

In July, London based Techno producers Dense & Pika were writing for Ibiza Voice as part of the websites effort to involve DJs into writing opinion columns. The pessimistic tone of parts of the article were well summarized by the title – ‘Techno is no longer the sound of the future’ it declared.  I differ vehemently with that assertion.

Techno, and Electronic music at large, will essentially remain the music of the future for a foreseeable time. But it is up to up to us as listeners and composers to invigorate the genre by shunning the shallowness of the mainstream music as it stands today and interest ourselves into demanding and delivering more. These acts of ‘demanding and delivering more’ may require patience, careful study and inspiration as these moments is hard to come by, but the promised future of music that entails Electronic music is hard to take out of our minds.

References

[i] Eimert, H., 1955. “What Is Electronic Music?”die Reihe l. English edition. Bryn Mawr. T. Presser Company; 1958.

[ii] Stockhausen, K. l955. “Actualia.” die Reihe l. English edition. Bryn Mawr: Theodore Presser Company; 1958.

[iii] Eimert, H., 1972 “How Electronic Music Began”. The Musical Times, Vol. 113, No. 1550.

[iv] Luening, Otto, 1968 “An Unfinished History of Electronic Music”. Music Educators Journal, Vol. 55, No. 3.

[v] Robert Worby, ‘Listening to Stockhausen’ <http://www.stockhausen.org/worby.html&gt;

[vi] Lebrecht, N., 1996. “The companion to 20th-century music”. Da Capo Press.

[vii] Supra, Eimert, H. 1972.

[viii] Schwartz, E., 1975. “Electronic music: a listener’s guide”. Praeger Publishers.

[ix]McCready, John, ‘Techno: Detroit’s music of the future’. The Guardian. (London, 30 April 2014)


Shantanu Singh is a student of law at Gujarat National Law University. He is also a writer/editor of the reputed EDM magazine We Rave You. He can be reached at shantanu3singh@gmail.com.

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