What’s That Buzz About, Anyhow?

[Note: this essay served as the introduction to a pamphlet on recommended electronic CDs, published by Pulse! magazine]

1. Visualize This Were this introductory supplement an industrial slide reel designed to edutain new initiates into the brave, utopian world of electronic music, it might start with grainy, sepia-toned images of “The Early Years.”

An anthropomorphic cartoon transistor might introduce itself by way of an off-color joke, and then launch into a cursory summary regarding the carbon-based precursors of contemporary electronic pop sounds.

Slide images would shuffle by, while the background noise of the slowly approaching dawn of the 20th Century plays quietly under the narration: railroad cars and conveyor belts, Morse code and semi-automatic guns.

Slides of Samuel Morse (1791 – 1872) himself, the accomplished painter whose supremely lo-tech telegraph united nations across vast territories — that rat-a-tat-tat setting the metronome pace of revolutions yet to come. Slides of Morse’s telecommunications descendant, Thomas Alva Edison (1847 – 1931), and his hare-brained plan to employ the new technology of phone lines to distribute music into homes. Slides of Nikola Tesla (1856 – 1943), toiling with his coils and musing about the music of the spheres. Of Guglielmo Marconi (1874 – 1937), smiling beatifically thanks to his wireless innovation. Of Leon Theremin (1896 – 1993) and his brash new music-making machine, which he named after himself (though he originally called it the Etherphone), and which one operates by gesticulating in a compact electrostatic field, producing sounds that still seem futuristic decades after the instrument’s introduction. Of George Antheil (1900 – 1959), the protege of Igor Stravinsky who wrote large-scale works for mechanical instruments and, being a distinguished precursor to punk rock, titled his premature autobiography Bad Boy of Music.

The final olde-timey slide, a picture of a Victrola the size of an elephant’s ear, would linger on the screen while our narrator talks a bit about the birth of jazz, about the glorious commotion of ragtime and Dixieland, about the fury of bebop and its attempt to rationalize the heightened cultural activity of the burgeoning American metropolis.

Then suddenly the screen would fill with color: paintings by Piet Mondrian (1872 – 1944) rotate through, intended to make visual sense of the rollicking, electric world that was just coming into being. The images are grids of colors, part stoplight, part billboard, part skyscraper, part avant-garde musical score.

The narration would cease and the slide reel’s soundtrack would get louder, as the background noises (the first on-screen words of Al Jolson, the aquatic sonar that won World War II, the glitchy inter-machine handshake of the fax, the welcoming tone of the Windows operating system) play on, first in succession and then beginning to loop, playing atop one another, building into a thick but — now that you think about it — not unpleasing cacophony.

Meanwhile, the Mondrian grid would get smaller and smaller, until those familiar building-block-colored boxes come to look like pixels, the building blocks of the modern computer screen. The hard-edged soundtrack would segue into something familiar, what the kids call “techno,” and the pixelated image on the screen would take the shape of a giant, yellow, circular, slightly sinister-looking smiley face.

2. Genre Wars If the slide show went off without a hitch, it would have made its point: If you think the current bounty of electronic music is overwhelming — the soundtracks to movies and advertisements and video games, the critical acclaim for people who make music with turntables, the idea of folks lining up around the block to listen to someone play with a laptop computer — just try and figure out where it all started.

The purpose of this publication is to provide some groundwork, but before venturing forth please take into consideration that amazement is as benevolent and powerful an intoxicant as is information. There is something for everyone within these pages, but there is little that will please everyone. Better to be overwhelmed than lectured to, better to have a handy guide (“Please, just tell me which freakin’ drum’n’bass collection to buy”) than an exhaustive database. The trainspotter, you might say, stops here.

Of course, for every subgenre profiled within, there is a coterie of highly informed, ruggedly opinionated, and deeply incensed detractors ready to convince you otherwise. Folks who came of age during disco will be hard put to see past their suburban junior-high memories of “The Hustle” to appreciate the cultural movement taking place, simultaneously, in the city. Folks who suffered years of therapy ridding themselves of memories of Saturday Night Fever are loudly pumping the soundtrack to John Travolta’s recent hi-tech thriller, Swordfish, which features a continuous mix by DJ Paul Oakenfold. Folks who don’t dig the so-called “big beat” of Fatboy Slim will scream “sell out” so loudly that you’d be hard put to hear the music over the admonishment. Folks who study the quasi-random compositions of John Cage will be called on the carpet for diminishing the hallowed tradition of authorial intent and, for that matter, a little something we like to call melody. Folks who cheerfully glimpsed a picture or mention of James Brown or Chubby Checker will wonder what, exactly, they’re doing reading about a dreadlocked guru named Lee “Scratch” Perry and a bald-headed descendent of Herman Melville. Folks who (used to) like drum’n’bass will tell you that Photek went pop, lost his edge, lost his nerve. You’ll ask who Photek is and, chances are, they’ll walk away.

We won’t walk away, though. Like the narrator of the slide reel, we’re evangelists with visual aids. We’ve made our lists and checked ’em twice. We’ll tell you which five Brian Eno CDs are the cornerstone to a solid record collection, which aesthetic crossbreeds (electrofunk, trip-hop, third-world trance) survive outside the laboratory, who taught Trent Reznor to screw with samplers like an animal.

We’ll tell you which Tangerine Dream records are musts to avoid (most, frankly) and which Depeche Mode albums are the band’s best — and, hence, we’ll invoke the email wrath of countless readers. We’ve risked it all for you. We’ll spend time limning the extensive catalog of bassist-producer Bill Laswell, knowing full well that his remix disc of Miles Davis’ electric-era albums is treated like The Satanic Verses in some jazz communities. (Just wait till folks get hold of his imminent finagling of the Santana catalog.)

3. Hear, Now This supplement arrives at a specific moment in time, during a kind of blessed lull. The publicity machine that once touted “electronica” as the next big thing has quieted down, as has much of the backlash by technophobes who took pleasure in electronic music’s inability to produce a Bruce Springsteen or a Madonaa — you know, the kind of consensually determined public figure who gives a human face to a genre.

Electronica has its near-stars, folks like Moby and Fatboy Slim, whose names, if not their facial features, have helped the mass audience orient themselves toward this growing cultural force. And it has its legends, folks like Brian Eno, the ambient progenitor, and Robert Moog, inventor of his synthesizer namesake, who lend the music a living legacy and, therefore, a palpable history.

But the strength of electronic music is not simply a matter of its handful of acknowledged name-brand proponents. Its strength is its breadth. Electronic music is no more easily circumscribed than jazz or classical music. What follows is less a syllabus than an overview, less an entrenched canon than an engine of discovery.

Explore the work of people who make new sounds with homemade instruments, and of people who produce complex clusters by layering samples of music by others. Follow the paths, make the connections. Note how Brian Eno started a record label that released music by Michael Nyman and other minimalist composers, and later produced albums with David Bowie, which were later transformed into chamber symphonies by another minimalist composer, Philip Glass, who would in turn work with Aphex Twin, who would remix music by Gavin Bryars, one of the composers who first had their music released on Eno’s early label. Get lost in the variety, and then hook onto sounds that entice you — the exotic zone of dub, the heavy abstractions of British upstarts, the forwarding-looking chamber music of Satie, the hypnotic textures of Steve Reich, the seductive stomp of techno — and see where you end up.

Originally published, in slightly different form, by Pulse! magazine, September 2001.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *