Is electronic music uprooting sounds from their cultural context? Max Pixel

As we see new technologies making it easier for the unskilled musician to create, we might wonder whether or not they are having a degenerative effect on the quality of music being produced. Yet the vibrant culture of electronic music that these technologies facilitate counteracts the somewhat narrow vision of the future of music as a bleak and sterile landscape dominated by garage band loops and crappy synths. 

Electronic music skeptics often assume that music created on a computer is not real music, and they can be forgiven for thinking in this way; qualities one might assume to be intrinsic to music such as an obvious narrative, or even the just the presence of an individual’s emotional expression are often not obviously present. The stronger emphasis on a beat and the lack of live instruments might suggest a shift towards a more primal response to music, and away from sounds that are more obviously rooted within their cultural context. But the fact is, whether we like it or not, our culture is becoming more and more defined by its relationship with technology. And so the sorts of sounds which might be initially dismissed as mere ‘noise’ reflect more about our culture than we might think.

The coinage of the term IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) reflects an anxiety about dance music that is considered ‘unintelligent’ – just a pounding beat lacking any artistic or cultural value. Yet dance music has a rich historical and cultural significance – just look at the progression of techno, coming from Detroit in a period of economic decline. It evokes feelings of sparseness and emptiness, appealing to people of post-war Berlin, where it remains incredibly popular. Mark Fisher explores the anachronism of contemporary electronic music through ‘Hauntology’, his characterization of a genre defined by its atemporality, a description that fits the music style of artists like Burial or the Ghost Box label. He says of them: ‘Their work sounded “ghostly” certainly, but the spectrality was not a mere question of atmospherics. What defined this “hauntological” confluence more than anything else was its confrontation with a cultural impasse: the failure of the future…’

He discusses the way in which 21st century electronic music is unable to progress technically beyond what was recorded in the 20th century, leading to a sort of ‘after the future’ age in which ‘electronic music had succumbed to its own inertia and retrospection.’ Returning to the world of electronic music, Fisher emphasizes the way in which the style of music within the genre, despite being largely depersonalized, is very much rooted in the past cultures it is taken from. This is what gives it a sense of nostalgia, and the uncanny. Electronic music artist Romare is a good example of this; he is described by 'The Skinny' as informed by an ‘academic approach combining and juxtaposing long-standing and cutting-edge African-American musical forms from jazz to juke with his own entrancing compositions in a way which belies the dusty historical narrative in which they are often placed.’ In this sense his music is rooted in and expands upon a rich cultural tradition.

“Maybe as music becomes more and more computer based, people will also appreciate the intimacy of seeing a band live.”

It is certainly true that without new technologies this method of cutting and sampling that expands the diversity of individual tracks wouldn’t be possible. Yet I can’t help but wonder whether in moving away from actually playing an instrument, a skill that can require years of practise, towards communicating instructions to a computerized device, we are losing something valuable. I spoke to Natalie Wildgoose, a London based jazz and soul singer, about how the growing popularity of electronic music might affect artists from other genres. Although she doesn’t feel a pressure to make her music more electronic, she does acknowledge the way in which electronic music produces a full sound. She sometimes feels anxious that performing with just herself and a keyboard ‘won’t be enough’.  And whilst she feels that some people are maybe starting to get bored with acoustic music, she is confident that truly skilled musicians will never be ultimately overlooked.

Musician Ella Paul, whose music incorporates both electronic and acoustic sounds agrees with this idea, and like Natalie argues that there will always be a place for live instruments: ‘Instrument playing is a really good skill - it's good for the soul and for the mind, and there will always be a place for skills like this. Maybe as music becomes more and more computer based, people will also appreciate the intimacy of seeing a band live.’

In a conversation I had with Rory Edmonds, a member of the Midnight Meat Train collective that both puts on nights and hosts a radio show, he emphasised the way in which music developed through computer technologies is still very much capable of creating a rich and challenging dialogue. For him, a lack of autonomy or distinct voice does not have to be limiting, but rather there can be something liberating about a genre of music which is ultimately un-dictatorial in its mode of expression. He seemed to suggest that whilst a song with lyrics might encourage you to relate directly to a feeling that already exists for people, the sorts of feelings generated by more abstract forms of musical expression might inspire the listener to feel something about themselves and others they wouldn’t have otherwise.

What’s emerged from these discussions is generally an optimistic feeling regarding the future of music and its relation to technology; the idea that electronic music and other genres can work in conjunction with each other to expand the parameters of musical expression is a positive one, as is the idea that acknowledging past musical traditions are an integral part of forming new ones, whether they appear as direct influences, or more subtly as ‘ghosts’ of music’s past. Everyone was keen to dispel the notion of either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ music; rather they encouraged the idea that music is about reflecting our current interests and priorities. As our lives come into closer contact with machines so will our music, and in the search for a ‘new’ sound we might be more and more inclined to look towards technologies.