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Electronica for Dunderheads

By Marc Weidenbaum

[Note: this essay served as the introduction to a supplement about electronic music, published by Pulse! magazine in 1999. In print it was intended to be designed to look like a parody of a “… for Dummies” book.]

Letter from the Publisher

Greetings. Welcome back, perhaps. The publishers of the Dunderheads series would like to take this opportunity to apologize to students of our previous editions of Electronica for Dunderheads, which became outdated more quickly than we had intended. This 32nd edition is highly unusual, in that it is the third edition to be released in 1999. We introduced Electronica for Dunderheads (“From Aphex Twin to Bjork”) in the now halcyon year of 1996. The circumstances were themselves unusual, in retrospect; the subject of electronic music only came to our attention after the focus groups we gather regularly at our home office in Livingston, N.J., reacted quite favorably to a Muzak arrangement of a Portishead song then playing regularly in our elevator.

Since 1996, our research staff has struggled valiantly to keep apace of the trends. Why only a year ago, it would have been unthinkable to publish a guide to popular electronic music without mentioning the band Crystal Method, whereas today it is not only feasible, it’s almost necessary — well, except to make a point such a this: Change is the only constant in today’s accelerated world of popular recordings.

Nor, apparently, is history free from the waves of trends that have come to comprise the ever-shifting canon — to paraphrase our crack team of interns. They tell us, for example, that today a mention of septuagenarian French composer Pierre Henri is de rigueur, whereas previous editions had nary a mention of his experiments. (Our interns also tell us that if we describe this 32nd edition as a “remix” of the 31st edition, that will be meaningful to you.)

In any case, welcome to the latest, authoritative (that is, for the foreseeable future — deadlines, paradigmatic culture shifts, the sudden Stateside viability of Eurodisco, and other acts of God notwithstanding) edition of Electronica for Dunderheads. And we hope that if you find the experience enjoyable you will try some of our related, and less volatile, volumes: Musique concrete for Dunderheads, Field Recordings for Dunderheads, Prog-rock for Dunderheads and RealAudio for Dunderheads. Coming in Fall 1999: MP3 for Dunderheads.

Chapter 1: Building a Collection

We assume you have picked up this guide to contemporary electronic popular music because you are intrigued and, being aware of your dunderhead status — the first step toward enlightenment — you wish to be more informed.

Perhaps your ears were enchanted by the percolating soundtrack to some current car commercial, or perhaps the repetitive rhythms forced upon you by a younger sibling or neighbor have proven unusually seductive and, rather than call Mom or the cops, you’ve decided to dance with the enemy.

The first step in building a CD collection is recognizing the area of music that interests you. Electronica represents a broad spectrum. Genres aren’t thoroughly helpful, but they do provide a starting point. It’s also impossible to do them justice in this constrained space, but let’s give it a try. Ambient is considerably slower — it’s almost beat-less — than trip-hop, which is slower than jungle (though some cuts by the musician Tricky are closer to hardcore rock than to the slo-mo sounds generally associated with trip-hop), which is always slower than gabber.

Of course, genre distinctions mean more than variations in speed (measured in BPM, beats per minute). Trip-hop is simply a kind of languorous pop music that learned (in general from hip-hop, but also from lots of other types of experimental and even academic music) that you don’t need real instruments to make music. Trip-hop tends to set voices atop tracks that are made from samples. Jungle, to cut to the chase, is thought to be instrumental (that is, vocal-free) music that borrowed from house music (dance music played at warehouse parties, thought to have been derived from disco) but rid itself of ornamentation. Drum’n’bass is a more experimental wing of jungle. Techno is a faster and, at times, less anthemic analog to house; if house celebrates the people dancing, techno celebrates the machines that people become while dancing. Conscientiously vapid, gabber is, in essence, techno at 78 rpm.

Suggested Listening: for ambient, Aphex Twin‘s Selected Ambient Works II (Warp); for trip-hop, Tricky‘s Maxinquaye (4th & Bway); for drum’n’bass, Photek‘s Form and Function (Science/Astralwerks); for techno, Juan AtkinsWax Trax! MasterMix Volume 1 (Wax Trax!/TVT).

Suggested Reading: Matthew Collin and John Godfrey’s Altered State: The Story of Ecstacy and Acid House (Serpent’s Tail), a British book recently published in the U.S. in an expanded second edition (see, everyone has trouble keeping up); Simon Reynolds’ Generation Ecstacy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture (Little, Brown).

Chapter 2: Art & Commerce

If DJs always seem to be grimacing behind their turntables, like highly mindful scientists, do remember that academic music composition is one of the pillars of electronic music, another being experimental media art.

For every wistful, poppy mingling of beats and soothing atmospherics (think Bjork, think Massive Attack, think the Orb), there’s a late-’60s MFA thesis on tape music, or analog synthesis, or the physics of sound gathering dust in a university archive. The makers of electronic pop music today are a disparate crew — former skatepunks, indie-rockers, and new-age mystics account for a solid percentage — but one thing they tend to have in common is “big ears.” Stalk one of them home from a rave and you’ll undoubtedly find closets full of records, tapes and CDs — their own archives.

Meat Beat Manifesto and Squarepusher, for example, vociferously credit Miles Davis’ early electric recordings for the sounds mined on their recent albums. To go back a generation, Brian Eno is similarly beholden to Erik Satie, whose dog-eared “Gymnopedes” are among the earliest examples of ambient composition. Though electronica is, if you believe the hype, the music of the future, its sample-based nature keeps it assuredly rooted in — and rifling through — the past.

Suggested Listening: Brian Eno‘s Ambient 4: On Land (Editions Eg.), a lovely early-’80s work, oblivious to the pop culture soon to foment in its quiet wake; Steve Reich‘s Reich Remixed (Nonesuch), on which nine musician-producers rework the minimalist composer’s oeuvre; Autechre‘s Tri-repetae++ (Warp), young Jedi masters of experimental dissonance and static, but you can kinda dance to it.

Suggested Reading: Paul GriffithsA Guide to Electronic Music (Thames & Hudson) is a concise study of the academic foundation of electronic pop music; the 1979 book is tellingly out of print — though, one imagines, not for long.

Chapter 3: The Future

Well, we’re admittedly a bit cloudy on this one, but certainly the future will bring a 33rd edition of Electronica for Dunderheads, with new genre terminology, an expanded discography and bibliography, and, inevitably, another apologetic note from the publishers. In the meanwhile, happy record-hunting.

Suggested Listening: MatmosQuasi-objects (Vague Terrain), conceptual art projects disguised as experimental pop music; Otomo Yoshihide‘s Filament 1 (Extreme), trenchant snippets of extended, razor-sharp tones, and you’ll thank him for it; Madonna‘s Grammy Award-winning Ray of Light (Maverick), produced by electronica legend William Orbit and destined to be aped by other pop stars looking to remain current.

Suggested Reading: hyperreal.org. If we’ve learned anything in the time we’ve been producing the Dunderheads series, it’s that print is ephemeral. This web site is one of the key loci of electronic music on the Internet.

Originally published, in slightly different form, in Pulse! magazine, May 1999.

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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