18 February 2007

totalizingly wired

so now i'm meant to talk about isolée? nope, just to say something about dance/idm/techno or whatever it is; this is meant to be a series of musings on genre, not just an albumist smorgasbord.

i'll say this: electronica can be hard to write about. partly because it can be hard to focus on - listening to it tends to make me want to do other things: dance, or groove, or zone out, or bob my head distractedly. also because there's not usually much you can say about meaning or concept - despite its pragmatic aspects, it's fundamentally fairly "pure", which is part of what makes me want to align it in some ways more with classical or art music, or at least jazz, than a lot of pop/rock. and there's often not much to say about the people making it either. more significantly, though, it's hard to write about because it's hard to find vocabulary that conveys much that's meaningful about the music. this - as well as the often trendy, exclusionary, and obscurantist culture that surrounds the music - may be why electronica has seen such a proliferation of sub-genres and sub-sub-classifications, perhaps more than any other realm of music.

there used to be a good deal of sense to it - at least, in the late '90s i felt like i had a pretty good handle on IDM and ambient, trip-hop, big beat, jungle/drum 'n' bass [which nobody is ever going to convince me are two separate things; i've had this discussion way too many times], trance and house (though those last two did at times seem fuzzy, a distinction occasionally based more on socio-cultural value judgments than actual musical criteria.) now big beat is more or less dead (though...more on that later); trip-hop has been diffused and subsumed into so many other forms that it's effectively gone, or else it's just called down-tempo now; d'n'b has given way to two-step and now slowed down into dubstep, supposedly; meanwhile house, trance, and IDM have all fused together and/or disintegrated into a bewildering array of labels that have more or less stopped being useful, certainly to me, but i get the sense even to the people that actually pay attention to the various german and scandinavian and south american microcliques of techno production.

this is not a bad thing: despite having its forebears and pioneers like any other genre, electronica seems somewhat ill-suited to traditional narratives of stylistic development and pigeonholed categories. there have of course been discernable "scenes" centered around certain stylistic substrata (and often geography - detroit, chicago, bristol, paris, ibiza) but i feel like this is due to patterns of trendiness and influence within very small and close-knit artistic communities, as opposed to the arguably more gradual, but also more sweeping, across-the-board shifts that happen in genres with more formal coherence and discernable lineages of stylistic progression.

that is, with the possible exception of specific scene-based movements like trip-hop and jungle, which have fairly well-defined aesthetic parameters and are fairly self-contained, electronic music seems to have a variety of strains or tendencies, between which it is always fluctuating, but all of which are active, to a greater or lesser extent, at any given point. it can have prominent dance beats, or frenetic, hard-to-dance-to beats, or mellower beats that don't really inspire you to dance, or be entirely beatless; it can be highly melodic, or harmonic, or neither; it can have lush synthesizers, or plinky or squiggly ones, or harsher industrialish sounds; it can be structured in clearly defined sections, or gradually evolving progressions; it can have few elements or many; etc. etc. - people are making electronica with pretty much any possible combination of these qualities today, and i think that if you go back to the early 90s or maybe even the late 80s or earlier, you'll find music that fits into all or most of those combinations then as well.

in rock, jazz, country, song-based dance forms, or most other genres you could think of, there is certainly plenty of recycling and variation between extremes and of course there are multiple strains coexisting at any given point, but there are also clear, broad historical progressions and overarching shifts and trends - and when these double back on themselves, as has been happening plenty lately, in rock particularly (and has happened so much in jazz in the last few decades that many people question its vitality/viability) it is manifestly evident that that's what they're doing. not so much, i would argue, in electronica - the recent upsurge of interest in italo disco, for instance, has revealed how much the last five years or so of microhouse, minimal, and what-have-you have borrowed from records that are sometimes over two decades old. now, the people making the music may have been aware of this, but i wasn't, not particularly, and even when i am now, the new stuff still sounds extremely modern.

perhaps another way to get at what i'm trying to say - or maybe just a related point - is the realization that there is little or no formal and musical vocabulary inherent in the way electronic music is produced. whereas most instruments have traditional styles and techniques that are usually passed down from teacher to student, changing only gradually to fit the trends of the day until some innovator comes along to introduce new dimensions - as well as physical parameters that make certain kinds of playing, and even certain melodic and harmonic choices, more idiomatic - the tools for making electronic music offer a much wider range of possibility without requiring a corresponding degree of technical proficiency.

i don't mean to underestimate the effect of learning to use the tools and programs - i'm certain that lots of great electronica has been the unwitting result of trying to get the machines to do something else, and that, of course, very proficient techno producers who really know their programs/equipment are far more effective at realizing their compositional goals. (same goes for those who are willing to put in a lot of painstaking work - squarepusher comes to mind, for example.) but there is a sense in which - especially with the present technology - creating an innovative or just plain interesting piece of electronica requires, first and foremost, simply concieving of it, and that being able to then actually create it is a secondary part of the process. (this is unlike a lot of music, where much more emphasis is put on the performance aspects - instrumental and vocal - of musical creation, and where recording and production may be valued very highly, but are not necessarily considered integral to the music in quite the same way.) on the other hand, this view of electronic composition belies the extent to which a lot of the music is probably composed through the very process of creating it, perhaps without much of a preconceived idea of how it will turn out. the composer is the producer is the performer, because all of these functions can be collapsed into one activity. (along these lines, it's pertinent that most electronic music is made by individuals rather than groups.)

this has been a long and hard-argued tangent that i hadn't anticipated taking, but was hopefully worthwhile. where i was at one point headed is the observation that by throwing out a lot of the genre subdivisions that once permeated thinking and writing about electronica, it becomes simultaneously harder to know what to say about a particular piece or artist's output, and easier to identify what is significant or salient about it. it's gotten so hard to know whether a techno sound in the '07 is minimal or neo-disco or neo-trance or whatever (and so irrelevant) that all that really matters, basically, is whether you think it's any good. whether you want to dance to it or fall asleep to it, whether you're compelled to listen to the intricacies of its arrangement or get its poppy melodies stuck in your head. most importantly, i guess, whether or not it stands out from the overwhelming output of modern electronica you may or may not have heard, demands your attention, and sticks in your memory.

(there are certain artists that fall somewhat outside the scope of this discussion - conceptual provocateurs like matmos and the books, song-centered popsters like richard x and the knife, perhaps unmistakeable sonic-signaturists like ratatat and cornelius - all of whom are electronic artists to a greater or lesser extent, but none of whose work is especially "pure" from a genrelogical perspective, which is all for the awesome in my book - on the other hand, you could just say that means they've found a way to resoundingly fulfill that last criterion.)

i give up on electronica. there's so much of it and so much of it seems to be relatively inaccessible (i mostly mean that in logistical terms.) i know some things that i like; i'll be happy to check out anything i hear good things about, provided i can get my ears on a copy; i'll keep trying to find artists that seem worth developing a relationship with. but i give up on trying to understand it in any kind of overarching and cohesive way. let's remember that whenever we try to do that with any music, we're mostly deceiving ourselves anyway.

9 pictureloved Y isolée

so there's isolée. honestly, i put this track on the 'cast mostly to demonstrate how fluidly the justin timberlake song functions as electronica, and also 'cause it's hard to find electronica songs about love. [except it's not really as hard as you might think - shoot, actually i had at one point intended to include the field's "action," which is the part of a 12" side called "love vs. action" - and which interpolates, i guess - doesn't actually sample - the four tops' "reach out i'll be there" - which would have given us something to talk about. oh well, maybe next time.]

anyway, isolée fits well here because i really have no idea what to call his music. before i heard it i thought it was going to be like IDM, and then i thought it was going to be microhouse, and i guess it is sort of like both of those (way more danceable than most IDM, but more structurally involved than most microhouse, and it's generally song-like in a way that both of those can be but not as a rule.) it's definitely melodic but not especially poppy; it's very warm and has a lot of unusual and interesting sounds as well as plenty of more standard ones. it's got guitars (as a lot of electronica does! - we shouldn't forget that) and voices doing things that aren't singing. basically it sounds great and has a lot of personality. but i don't know what to compare it to.

the only other similar record that i've felt this good about in the last little bit is lindstrøm's it's a feedelity affair, which is somewhat easier to describe: it sounds like disco, for the most part; electronic, obviously, so mostly like italo disco; it's somewhat but not overtly song-based; a lot of the tracks are somewhat epic and spacey - so that's why they call it "space disco." makes sense. the first time i listened to it it made me giddy from the first notes. it doesn't quite live up to that the whole way through, but it does have "i feel space," which is so, so achingly beautiful and majestic that i really have a hard time conceiving of anybody disliking it.

but i'm sure that some people would or do, because there are some people that "don't like electronic music." well, fancy that.

(but those people probably don't even like "i feel love")

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