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May 24, 2002

++ Are We Electric Yet?

++ It was so much easier when I was a kid, and I listened to punk. "What kind of music do you listen to?" a new acquaintance would ask, sizing me up. "Hardcore," I'd say. "You know, punk." And that was that.

These days, though, it's a lot more difficult. Well, sure, I listen to a lot more different kinds of music, as one tends to do as a grownup. Within easy reach of my desk, I can see CDs from SND, Faust, Prefuse 73, Fennesz, DJ Zinc, Blackalicious, Jim O'Rourke, Radiohead, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Stanton Warriors, N.E.R.D., and the soundtrack to "The Royal Tenenbaums" (give or take a few thousand titles).

Clearly, my range has broadened somewhat since the days of Black Flag and Bad Brains. Of course, being slightly more comfortable in my skin than I was at 16, I no longer feel the need to identify myself by a particular musical category. But the fact remains that most of the music I listen to comes from that nebulous category called "electronic music," and most of the writing I do focuses on the same stuff. This complicates matters a little. Nowadays, when someone asks me what kind of music I listen to, there's no quick answer. If I say "electronic music" to most people, I elicit blank stares — most likely evoking memories of Switched on Bach and Vangelis.

I could say "DJ music," but that's not quite right — what about all the microsound, the glitch, the field recordings and improv? They're hardly products of DJ culture. Grasping about for a catchall you might say "electronica," but in the U.S., at least, "electronica" is generally thought of a sub-par media term, about as subtle as MTV.

The term I used with my parents, for no particular reason, was "techno" — after all, it has a nice ring to it, it carries historical weight, it's applicable across continents. Then last summer, my parents were staying at a hotel in Barcelona, where they looked out the window and noticed a DJ setting up his sound system along the alleys of the Barrio Goti. (It was, in fact, the week of Sónar, but no, they weren't traveling with me, or going to the festival. At least, I didn't see them there.) My mother, eager to practice her Spanish and participate vicariously in her son's musical culture, went down to the street to talk to the DJ, who stared uneasily at her, certain she was going to tell him to turn the music down. "What kind of music are you playing?" she asked in her rudimentary Spanish. "Is that techno?" The DJ's eyes widened as he looked at her in amazement. "No," he said. "Electronica."

++ What is electronic music? It's a term we often and unquestioningly use to describe any number of distinct styles and methodologies, from house and techno to musique concrete, from left field hip-hop to minimalistic microsound. Even Sónar, a festival devoted to a wide range of "advanced music," is often referred to as an "electronic music festival," and with good reason, given its roster full of DJs, live techno acts and "experimental" composers who rely heavily on computers and electronics to fashion their music — when it can be considered "music" at all, given the expanding fields of noise and sound art.

As you can see, scare quotes play an increasingly important role in the strange new world of 21st century audio. Which is it: electronic music, or "electronic music"? The biggest challenge confronting this slippery category today might just be its very identity.

In preparing for this article, I wanted to see what the artists thought about being pegged as electronic musicians. It's no secret that many musicians hate genres — ask any journalist who's made the mistake of pigeonholing his subject. Call someone a house musician, he says he's techno. Call her techno, she insists she's electro. God forbid you should attempt the clever critical move of coining a new genre altogether — post-rock, microhouse, broken beat. "I refuse to be pinned down!" he'll say. "It's all just music."

Well, sure, it's all just music — but that doesn't mean it can't be categorized, and it doesn't mean that categorizing is a bad thing, either. I don't know why so many musicians — and listeners — insist that subgenres are just the creations of marketers. That couldn't be further from the truth. Compare-and-contrast is one of the oldest exercises in criticism. In a musical landscape heavily mediated by popular culture, where artists are always working with and against their fellow artists, categorizing is one of the most basic ways to determine just how music makes meaning. (And to further refute the distrustful musician's suspicion, marketing departments are all about selling to the largest number of people possible; there's no way they're going to delineate their "product" in such a way that it might alienate the potential buyer.)

++ So I emailed a handful of artists, from techno producers to rock musicians who have begun experimenting with software in their side projects, to ask the questions, "What does the term 'electronic music' mean to you? Do you use the term? Does it accurately reflect your own process or production? And is it a useful means of differentiating your music from other forms?"

Their answers were revealing. In response after response, they rejected the very idea of "electronic music" as a category. Sure, a few pointed out the term's useful aspects. "To me," wrote Kit Clayton, " 'electronic music' is any music which exploits the electronic means of production as an integral part of its aesthetic."

This definition speaks to a certain body of work — artists who reference their equipment or process, as with the exploding field of "glitch" artists using the sounds of digital errors as the formal foundation for their work. But Clayton might give too much credit to artists — already, only a handful of years after artists like Nicolas Collins, Oval and Disc began incorporating the sounds of skipping CDs into their work, the "glitch" aesthetic is becoming naturalized — just another option in the electronic music palette. I'm not sure, for instance, that most house or techno producers self-consciously foreground their samplers or drum machines, any more than most rock musicians emphasize the guitar-ness of their guitars.

Most artists were more critical than Clayton. Jason Kahn, who fuses improvisation, digital editing, percussion and field recordings, replied, "I find the term 'electronic music' about as descriptive as terms like 'rock' or 'experimental.' For me, electronic musical tools (computers, samplers, etc.) are just a means of digging deeper into the body and origin of a sound."

Robin Rimbaud, AKA Scanner — an artist who might be considered more "electronic" than most, having utilized dance music rhythms, field recordings, intercepted mobile phone transmissions, digital signal processing, and other new-media techniques throughout his career — responded in similar fashion: "['Electronic music'] describes a production technique, little else. It can only offer a modest proposal towards how the object might finally sound, nothing more."

Still others attacked the term as conceptually sloppy. Stephan Mathieu wrote, "Electronic music for me is strongly connected to electronic devices necessary to create music, like in the traditional sense of hardware oscillators, synthesizers and the like. My work is currently dedicated to the digital domain."

And his sometime collaborator Ekkehard Ehlers chimed in, "After the rise of the PC and the constant development of software, digital music today is everything between Britney Spears and Janek Schaeffer. Music made on a computer can't be 'electronic,' that's impossible."

Very true. The term "electronic" is largely a kind of umbrella term for all non-acoustic — or indeed, non-electric sound, a holdover from the days of both analog experimentation in academia and synthesizer-and-drum-machine music in clubs. But is it any more useful to differentiate digital music — which, broadly defined, is virtually everything produced today — from studiously analog electronic music like Adult., Goem or Pan Sonic?

When most artists used the term "electronic," in fact, it was to differentiate their own work from another tradition or methodology. But clearly, the act of differentiation depends upon what side of the divide you stand on. Do Radiohead, for instance, make "electronic music"? Rockers who don't like their new direction might say yes, with a sneer; club kids who think a guitar is a guitar is a guitar might not (and just as sneeringly). In any case, digital techniques are all around us, as invisible as the electricity that runs them. The Brooklyn, N.Y., artist Chris Sattinger, who records as Timeblind, emphasized this when he wrote, "Dwight Yoakam or your average symphony orchestra recording has more technology than all of techno combined."

++ My own initiation into digital music, if we're going to call it that, came from Béla Bartok, strangely enough. I was in college in New York State in the early 1990s, and my piano teacher had been commissioned to accompany an accomplished concert violinist in a recording of Bartok's violin sonatas. She needed someone to turn the pages of her sheet music as she played, and so for $100 and an inside look at the classical music industry, I jumped at the chance. I learned a thing or two in the process — for one thing, how to flip the pages quickly and quietly so that their rustling didn't sneak into the sound of the recording. More importantly, though, I learned that classical virtuosity is as indebted to multitrack recording as is the latest top-10 hit.

The duo ran through take after take of the sonata, and then began revisiting particular sections. The producer would pick the best passages and splice them together seamlessly. I knew they did that in pop music, but who would have thought that Deutsche Grammophon, keeper of high culture and arbiter of authenticity, would do the same? It's amusing — and refreshing — to think that even classical music has borrowed the techniques of studio pioneers like Phil Spector and King Tubby. And while that revelation feels like ancient history, distanced by a decade of radical electronic and digital techniques, it's a useful reminder of how even the most "artificial" technologies become naturalized, and how the distinction between avant-garde and commonplace is sometimes more subtle than it seems.

++ So where does this leave us? Honestly, I'm not sure we know the answer yet. As a label, "electronic music" has served so far primarily as a kind of identity politics, unifying a loose coalition of methodologies, genres and "scenes" against that grumpy old traditionalist, Rock. But things are changing faster than you know it; all definitions are up for grabs.

Just look at what's happened with hip-hop. Not only have rock musicians incorporated rappers and DJs, but rock critics have even begun claiming hip-hop as a part of the rock tradition. Which seems strange, for while hip-hop shares rock's lyrical emphasis, its production is much closer to dance music's methods. Will rock soon claim "electronica" as its own offspring as well? (There are certainly arguments for this: the poppiest big-beat shares rock's traditional song structure, and even some house, techno and trance follow closely behind.) Or will the digital domain simply swallow up rock and all rock's kin?

The one prediction I will make is that the comfortable compartmentalization of genres and scenes — academic computer music, dance music, noise, hip hop, rock, dancehall reggae, soca, Afropop, Brazilian baile funk, and so on, and so on — will continue to blur, making this identity politics inside and outside of "electronic music culture" utterly moot.

The critic Bruno Latour has demonstrated how Modernism attempts to draw a line between itself and everything that has come before it. For decades now, the champions of electronic music have done the same — assuming a cyborg's stance in breaking with the carbon-based past, and following the logic of Moore's Law to postulate a perpetual evolution of technology-based music. But it's worth bearing in mind that music, for all its linearity, is indebted to repetition. Most machine- and computer-made musics, after all, rely on the loop as their basic unit. Lines and loops, power cords and drum circles, offworld trajectories and equatorial orbits. All the questions that attach themselves to music — questions of form, genre, rhythm, reception, markets, place, race and identity — will find different answers, depending on how we theorize the relationship between loops and lines. Perhaps it's time to unplug our assumptions and get back to making meaning one bar, one beat, at a time.


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