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Electronic Music - A Philosophical Defence

Standing at one of the most exciting crossroads in musical history we look at the pros and cons of electronic music.

I constantly find myself in the position of an apologist for electronic music in discussions with people who seem either to have heard very little E.M., or a very specific type of E.M. which they dislike.

By 'electronic' I mean any music which uses electronics in either its production or treatment or both. 'Classical E.M.' seems to be identified with Musique Concrete; indeed one musician I know remarked that the phrase live electronic music was a 'contradiction in terms'. It is important not to limit ourselves to this rather academic use of the term.

But Musique Concrete — so-called Classical E.M. — is as a good a point as any to begin a defence of electronics in music, because it challenges our most basic assumptions about the nature of 'true' music. Can any sound be classed as music? Can the sounds one hears standing in the middle of Oxford Street be classed as music? The idea that they can is certainly older than John Cage. In 1855 the American poet Walt Whitman wrote:

'Now I will do nothing but listen,
To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it.
...Soundsofthecityand soundsoutof the city, sounds of the day and night,
... The ring of alarm-bells, the cry of fire, the whirr of swift-streaking engines and hose-carts with premonitory tinkles and color'd lights,
...The steam-whistle, the solid roll of the train of approaching cars'

We need to develop a new mode of listening and appreciating: the old parameters of traditional musical expression are replaced or (better) supplemented by new ones which are new in an often radical way.

As far as using electronics to produce sounds is concerned, people will often claim that the idea of using 'machines'to make music is 'unnatural'. Unfortunately for this argument, the fact is that all musical instruments are machines. The piano is a machine, and so is the flute. If by 'machine' we mean 'human-created' then the only exception is the human voice. Connected with this is the notion that a drum machine rhythm is less 'human' than a real drummer's equivalent. Desmond Morris2 has pointed out how closely our appreciation of rhythmic pulse — especially of the 'disco' variety — is linked to our pre-natal perception of the maternal heartbeat. And the heart is itself a biological rhythm machine.

Perhaps the greatest misconception of all is that electronic instrumental sounds are cold, unfeeling, inexpressive. They can be, but they can also be the warmest, most expressive sounds available to a composer. It's a new, different kind of warmth, though, and the means of expression are new: phasing, filter-sweep, and complex dynamic envelope to name just three. For sheer expressive power try listening to the Ondes Martenot — an instrument unfamiliar to far too many people — in Olivier Messiaen's 'Turangalila' Symphony. In the realm of Time, electronic sequencers are opening up a whole new world of rhythmic expression. In the words of Peter Baumann: "The sequencer can play any rhythm, many rhythms in fact that we can't play. But these rhythms exist."3 Unfortunately there are some people who take the attitude that anyone who dares to produce sounds that have never been heard before is simply not worthy of the title 'musician'. (In 1899 a Viennese music society rejected the opportunity of giving the first performance of Schoenberg's 'Transfigured Night' because they discovered a chord — the fourth inversion of the dominant ninth — which could not be found in any current book on harmony.)

Naturally, with all this wealth of novel sound suddenly available, there is a danger of over-indulgence in the purely physical aspects; an orgy in colour at the expense of line and form. To my mind this is the case with Larry Fast, and often in the past with Tangerine Dream: intimacy and expression are restricted. Compared with these, a track like Kraftwerk's "The Model" seems positively austere, which makes it all the more effective. This is only my personal view, but I think the trend towards austerity and economy of means, even repetition, in much recent E. M. can be seen as a return to the spirit of early music, where we find exactly these qualities, but in the company of acoustic instruments. (Consider a medieval French chanson.)

E.M. is only as good as the people who compose and play it. It's the same with anything, but people regrettably blame the medium, not its exponents, when they don't like what they hear. In this respect I strongly believe that E.M. must be original, and not an attempt to 'do the classics'. More harm has probably been done to E.M.'s claim to be a serious art-form by Tomita's arrangements than by anything else. I personally know several classical music lovers whose hatred of E.M. seems to stem mainly from hearing Tomita records.

Most encouraging at present, however, is the rapidly growing commercial acceptance of electronic sound. Bands like Human League, O.M.D. and Soft Cell are showing that synthesisers can play tunes, and the sounds can be very pleasant to listen to. It doesn't seem very long ago that the idea of an all-electronic group topping the charts was regarded with amusement.

So what of the future? Will the present explosive development of never-dreamt-of sophistication (in musical rather than technical terms) lead composers and musicians to search for a new simplicity and purity, as I've suggested? (This is the light that music like Erik Satie's 'Gymnopedies' must be viewed in, coming as it did at the climax of 19th century Romantic indulgence.) Whatever happens, it is pointless to either oppose or lament it. Change is healthy in itself, and can only lead to greater freedom for art. As always we are at a developmental crossroads, but for my money it is the most exciting one in the history of music.

1. Walt Whitman — 'Song of Myself', in Complete Poems of Walt Whitman. Penguin, 1975.
2. Desmond Morris — Intimate Behaviour. Jonathan Cape, 1971.
3. Interview in New Musical Express, 22nd September 1979.

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Guide to Electro-Music Techniques

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ElectroMix 842

Electronics & Music Maker - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Electronics & Music Maker - Oct 1982

Opinion by Steve Moore

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