Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Electronic Dancing Music

Wandering aimlessly around the music blogs recently, I stumbled across this post by Pipecock over at Infinite State Machine, which references this post by Ronan Fitzgerald, which references this post by Philip Sherburne on Pitchfork.

The Philip Sherburne post seems to amount to musings along the lines of “everything seems quite grim at the moment”. Ronan Fitzgerald nuances this with an assessment that seemingly the dance music scene hates itself at the moment due to an overload of minimal hype that has yet to be replaced with something else, and points out that purism tends to ignore the murky and druggy aspects of dance culture, that he (rightly I think) points out are nearly as fundamental as the music itself.

I think the minimal hype overload thing is a bit annoying, but it's not so difficult to avoid - just keep buying records (or making records) instead of paying so much attention. The process of the underground spawning mini-scenes for the mainstream to hype for 2-3 years has been going on ever since I've been interested in dance music, and having that overground part taking all the attention seems to be quite a reliable and efficient way of allowing the underground to stay where it is, doing the inventive stuff.

But Pipecock’s post is by far the most interesting, recontextualising the discussion in terms of what dance music is really about, and since this leads him to consider some of the most interesting aspects of the dance music experience, it’s well worth a look over.

Quoting from ISM:
"The reason house and techno are effective is that they bypass so many of the limitations that other musics have and go straight for people’s emotions."
This goes to the heart of the attraction of dance music - there is something in the driving loop of a house groove that is deeply entrancing, to the point where your brain does start to function differently, particularly as you dance. I'd go so far as to say the appeal of the cranking looping kick drum is to a place even deeper than your 'emotions', and Pipecock’s allusion to a Zen analogy may not be too far off. As the KLF said in their tongue-in-cheek (but spectacularly insightful) book “The Manual”, “it is through dance music and dancing we are able to get momentarily back to the Garden”.
"Musicians talk about music “writing itself” while athletes routinely make plays that they wouldn’t have thought possible. It all comes from letting the mind go, which is exactly the opposite of the way these critics have been approaching dance music."
This is a problem, but it’s a problem that is difficult to surmount. Any discussion of dance music necessarily requires an intellectual response, but the ‘switching off’ nature of the dance experience in it’s proper context is one of de-activating some of the higher functions of the brain (such as analysis and ego), in favour of the lower and more primal functions (direct experience and id). It’s difficult to critically analyse music whose central experience revolves around the suspension of analysis – and while this doesn’t mean that analysis of dance music is invalid (many great house and techno tracks stand up to analysis just fine), it is important to be aware of the contradictions implicit in analysing music in this way.
"Thought is required to use Ableton to deejay, the actions are more mental than physical and that diminishes the ability to reach the point of “action without thought”. The same goes for the producers who are more like computer scientists than musicians in many cases."
I have a couple of problems with software such as Ableton (amazing though it is), one of them being the “computer scientist” performance that it tends to elicit from the DJ. While really it should be all about the audio experience, you can’t help but be affected by the attitude and energy coming from the DJ themselves. Another problem is that Ableton and similar Djing software tend to result in perfect beatmatched tracks. There is the argument that beatmatching itself is a redundant and purely technical skill, and automating it allows the DJ to concentrate on selection, set progression, ‘mixing’ between the tracks and parts, etc etc etc. This would be a valid argument if the human beatmatching process contributed nothing to the experience, but I feel there is something in the imperfections of manually mixed tracks that imparts a uniquely human energy to a mix. There’s nothing like the buzz of dancing away, while a mix of two records slowly gets pulled in to shape by the DJ. For an example, listen to Jeff Mills “Live in Tokyo” album – it’s far from perfectly nailed timing, but it has an awesome raw energy to it, partially imparted by the fact you can hear the human pushing, dragging, and willing the records to sit together as he blisters through his set at a jaw-dropping rate.

As for computer software and interfaces when writing music, this is one of the biggest issues for me when writing in music. While I do use a computer, I try to use it as little as possible, and only for the things that it can do best – hardware for me is much more conducive to creativity. This is largely a matter of taste, but I believe that computers and music software in particular have way too many options, and then force you to access these options via the most narrow and awkward of interfaces (mice and keyboards). It compounds the “painting the hallway through the letterbox” problem of programming early digital studio hardware on tiny LCDs, with the problem exacerbated by having so many options in the software to begin with. It becomes very hard to apply quality control, as the endless range of miniscule editing options leads you to believe that endless tweaking of a mediocre idea might turn it into a great track. All of this tweaking costs energy, and I find it ultimately far more inspiring to have hardware with less options. This means your idea is either good straight away, or not good enough – in which case you can ditch it and move on to the next idea.

Ultimately, the problem is one of barriers between us and experiencing music as directly as possible. Be it the problem of critical analysis interfering with our direct listening or dancing experience, or be it Ableton Live interfering with our experience of the human playing the music, or be it with heavy music software in the studio interfering with our ability to quickly and directly interpret musical ideas without breaking out of the creative moment, the problem is the same.

Any time that we allow barriers to be raised between us and our direct experience of the music, something is lost - and the removal of these barriers (whether naturally or with assistance) is what makes the experience of dancing to this music so alluring.

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