Saturday, December 03, 2005

Patterns forever recycling...

As I look at today's electronica 'charts' .. heh.. funny really, electronica...charts... The very thing I feared years ago, happened so slowly, and so subtly that nobody ever bothered to catch it.

Electronica became mainstream.

But then again, we really should have seen it coming. Kraftwerk provided a brief, yet whimsical glimpse into this future over 30 years ago with the release of their seminal atmospheric techno-pop release "Autobahn." Simple, hypnotic, and ever so whimsically catchy. This provided the base from which so many artists would later base their future works, not only transitional pop stars at the time like David Bowie, and Iggy Pop..but the coming punk rock revolutions in the fast proceeding years (the irony there, is listen to the first two albums pioneered by Ralf Huetter and Florian Schneider, Tonfluss: Organisation, and Kraftwerk...1, they were psychadelic rock, but listen closer, the spontenaety of the entire german art rock scene pre-dated punk by six years!), and the New Wave, and bedroom-based electronica genres that would soon follow.

Bedroom based... Therein lies the reason it seeded in the first place. Think of the etymology of the word "house" ... Not many people realise, that it was called house, because the progenitors of this sound, Marshall Jefferson (chicago), Frankie Knuckles (new york), Larry Heard aka Mr. Fingers, were writing this stuff, in their bedrooms, with a couple of second-hand synths, and some drum machines they bought at pawn shops! It's rather amazing what winds up being so fashionably chic, starts in the smallest of places, and grows to an almost insanely expensive and over-produced industry.

But the very simplicity of these early recordings was forced, wasn't it? You can only fit so much into a 16-step pattern on a TR-909. You can only fit so much sonic content onto a cassette tape, So the end result WAS forcibly minimal. But it was also this simplicity that reinforced a sort of spontaenaety! The same spontenaety that kick-started the Punk and New Wave era, also spawned an entire club sub-culture. The house, that started as a sort of minimal counterpoint to disco, essentially in itself today has become a highly ornate, and in my opinion, baroque, art form which very closely mimics the 'disco' that it shunned many years ago.

Techno, on the other hand, had a much simpler reason for existance. Techno was designed as a music to fill the after-hours slots for all-ages dance clubs in Detroit. It was composed by teenagers, many of them were barely 16 years old when the whole movement started (Juan Atkins, who recorded under the moniker Model 500 in 1985, after the split of his electro band Cybotron, just a couple years earlier.) Techno, will always be described by the people who created it as a fusion of electro and funk. Or to be more precise, a description by Derrick May of Transmat once said, "Imagine Kraftwerk and George Clinton stuck in an elevator." And as such, its limited yet spontaneous nature would come to influence many musicians in the coming years.

The very limited nature of both genres caused a sort of want from people to expand from these limited patterns and sequences, into something more intricate. As the capabilities of the technology used to create these works of art increased, the aesthetic quality of the resulting recordings also increased, but also the amount of time required to create the works of art. The Spontenaety and experimentalism which characterised the early works started to take a back seat to production.

As music genres grow into sub-genres, other sub-genres form, with almost exacting opposite counterpoints. Trance eventually became a counter-point to house's ever-increasing ornateness, taking cues from earlier hypnotic artists such as Brian Eno, and Tangerine Dream, to create mood altering movements within the music, which when combined with the hundreds of people in a single space, you can literally see emotional transferrance at work, combined with its, again, initial spontenaety and limited scope of composition.. but what is this resultant effect I am pointing out here?

Memetic acceptance.

Spontaneous, Catchy, Hypnotic, Easy to explain to others == Memetic transferrance and therefore Memetic acceptance of any given art form.

This is how genres are initially accepted.

However, as time goes on, a critical mass of both artists and listeners are reached, where the memetic concept is no longer needed. The listeners and musicians want more from the music. So a cascading effect begins, where the music becomes more and more ornate, losing its initial spontenaety. This happens in parallel with record companies which see the increasing listening crowds for what they call a particular 'genre' or 'focus group'...and therefore wish to maintain and increase the popularity of this genre.. The music is literally uprooted from its initial growth point, and transplanted into the studios. It is here, that the entry point for new muisicans wishing to get into this genre now find it exceedingly difficult, if not perceptively impossible to do so.

This brings me to my next point, the advent of commoditised digital audio workstations, and the effects they are having on both the professional and independent artists, and their listeners...

The Digital Audio workstation has been a boon to producers, and artists in some ways.. It has allowed an enormous amount of flexibility at the editing stage, as well as an incredible amount of simplification at the recording stage, both in the number of moving parts required during the post production phase, and in the amount of experimentation allowed during the editing phase because the entire process is non-destructive, you can cut, paste, edit, shift around with impunity, and simply not have to worry about re-doing a take onto tape, much less the ever-growing piles of spliced tape falling on the control room floor.

However, this intense flexibility comes at an ever-increasing complexity at the recording and editing stages as well.. In order to alleviate these problems, integrated solutions have sprung up from many companies, bringing more spontenaety into the mix, at the risk of limiting the overall output, "Oh yes, this was done in Reason, I can tell."

How does this affect the professional musician? Quite simply, it gives them more tools, because more often than not, they have the money, and the impending drive to learn these tools in order to complete a job. It's the impending need to make money here that overrides any stubbornness.

How does this affect the independent musician? The independent musician is an extremely varying breed, ranging from someone just recording with a microphone in their bedroom, to someone who wishes to learn how to create professional recordings. This wide breadth of personality and drive creates an interesting problem. When faced with a highly complex piece of software, how much effort does someone wish to put into it? Do they want to take weeks to create a new track?

But how does this relate again?

The increase in technology, coupled with the ever-ornateness of the entire art form, coupled with the record companies' desire to just sell more records, creates a sort of closed loop, inside a wall the size of The Great Wall of China. The music reaches a point where it doesn't change, and it simply recurses in upon itself, and reaches a point where the entire genre becomes, in the ears of the listener, boring and superfluous. The Genre hits its plateau, and begins its decent downward.... back into sub-culture.

But there is hope!

It is this recursion, which in and of itself, causes a counter-cultural response. The Punk rock movement was created in direct opposition to over-produced, extremely ornate, yet exceedingly banal rock music.

What will the counter-point be to modern electronica?

For a long time, I thought it was IDM, tons of spontenaety, however no simplicity, it lacks a simple accessibility needed to push a musical form into critical mass.

Let's break the cycle, guys. It will re-form again in 20 years, but let's break the cycle, and start the deconstruction towards an even greater musical form!