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Critical Enquiry - Music - Dissertation Sample

14 Mar 2017Dissertation Samples

Brief

'By actively linking themselves to a particular tradition [the tradition of concrete music and electronic music], contemporary popular musicians are able to  construct an alternative history of popular music - not a history that begins with  blues and wends it way through R&B, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, the  Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, and others, but a tradition that has  roots in studio experimentation.

This history, however, usually omits the African-American and gay musicians who  are demonstrably the real precursors of techno music, for it is mainly being  championed by heterosexual suburban white men. For them, a lineage going back  to the European avant-garde is more compelling than a more historically accurate  one that traces their music to African Americans and gays. As such, these latter  

groups are almost wholly exscripted as techno is championed as an intellectual  music to be listened to, not danced to.'  

Taylor, Timothy D. 2001. Strange Sounds - Music, Technology and Culture. New York:  Routledge  

With reference to the issues raised in the above quotation, answer the following questions:  How important was the music of the European avant-garde (i.e. Schaeffer, Henry,  Stockhausen and others) in the development of techno and electronica? Has its importance been fairly represented? Give reasons for your answer.

This essay considers concepts of lineage and the importance of particular precursors in the emergence of techno and electronica, and will show that the lineage argued for by Taylor is oversimplistic. Due to the essay length, the focus will inevitably be on music and musicians core to the practices in question – a relatively small segment, yet still more than adequate to demonstrate the complexity of influences on electronic music. 

Definitions of techno and electronica are elusive. Smith (2002 : 1) applies the term ‘electronica’ to DJ Shadow, Aphex Twin, Tricky, The Chemical Brothers and Prodigy. With music of these artists ranging from intricate ambient landscapes (Aphex Twin) to aggressive fusions of dance styles with rock guitar on Prodigy’s Fat of the Land (1997), it could be argued that the term is broad and could also apply to Kraftwerk, the Human League and Depeche Mode. The definition of techno has also become broad:

“in the 1990s… almost any dance music that could not be described as house or garage was given the label [techno]” (Fulford-Jones 2002 : 190)

The ‘invention’ of techno is usually credited to a group of three Detroit-based musicians: Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May. May and Saunderson introduced Atkins to the music being played in clubs in Chicago serving the “predominantly black, predominantly gay” (Collin 1997 : 18) scene, giving credence to Taylor’s argument.

However, the influence of European electronic music was fundamental. Atkins introduced May and Saunderson to music such as Kraftwerk, The Human League and Gary Numan. May recalls how Atkins had told him: 

“We need to make electronic music…as black people we need to do this because nobody has ever done it.” (Bidder 2001 : 77)

Here is a conscious appropriation of ‘otherness’, yet the influence of contemporary black music is embraced too in a cosmopolitan fusion. Taylor’s focus on a black, gay lineage is as inappropriately narrow as the alternative history he criticises.

The ‘alternative history’ should not be dismissed, however. Members of Kraftwerk have cited Stockhausen as an influence and attended concerts (http://kraftwerk.hu/faq). A 1975 feature describes their main influences as “late-night broadcasts of electronic music” and “American pop music…especially the Beach Boys” (Bangs 1975 : 485). It could be argued that, through Kraftwerk, techno links to Stockhausen, and even beyond to Schaeffer (Stockhausen worked for a time in the Paris studio with Schaeffer). Yet a strong chain of influence is difficult to establish, and Taylor’s reservations about avant-garde influence seem justified.

Yet not all techno-style music emerged in Detroit. Aphex Twin developed techno-style music simultaneously to its emergence in Detroit, yet he was a teenaged, white schoolboy in Cornwall at the time. He claims to have been making the music for some years before hearing any Detroit techno. His approach was more experimental, “modifying analogue synths and junk” (Reynolds 1998 : 163), and he went on to study electronics at university. Reynolds suggests this shows parallels with John Cage’s instrumental modifications (Reynolds 1998 : 163), yet there is just as strong a link to Hendrix’s exploration of the range of sound his electric guitar could generate. However, parallels are not necessarily the result of influences.

In fact, the absence of acknowledgement of European, or indeed American, avant-garde composers in the documentation of techno is striking. They are only occasionally presented in the same sphere, as, for example, in the documentary Modulations directed by Iara Lee. Lee interviewed over 300 musicians, including Atkins, May, Stockhausen and Pierre Henry, and comments in interview:

“The starting point was supposed to be Kraftwerk. But electronic music didn't start with Kraftwerk, it started with John Cage in the twenties, Stockhausen and even the futurists in the 1930's.” (www.indiewire.com/people/int_Lee_Iara_980304.html)

Again, parallels and similarities seem more in evidence than influences.

Schaeffer is certainly an important figure within the history of electronic music, as prior to his experiments in the late 1940s, recording techniques had not been used creatively as an artistic medium in their own right. Yet the wide usage of tape and studio techniques by artists ranging from the Beatles to Can mean any clear line of influence splits into many strands.

Techno and House’s original sound was hallmarked by Roland drum machines and electronic bassline generators creating a synthetic rhythm section, and in this sense, parallels can be drawn with the Cologne studio, where electronic sources were used. Sampling, on the other hand, uses musique concrète’s natural sound sources, manipulating them through modern digital technology rather than that of the 1950s. Yet this still fails to establish any clear strand of influence: it merely shows parallels.

There is a disparity in aesthetic approach, noted by Pierre Henry, who collaborated with Schaeffer:

“ I think it's unfortunate that it is for the moment too much connected to the place it is listened to, to high volume listening where bass is powerful. It's a music far too much connected to physiological reactions and not enough to mental reaction.” 

Here, it is the European avant-garde arguing for the ‘intellectualisation’ of techno. The culture of creation is very different too: techno and electronica draw on accessibility of technology which dropped in price in the 1980s, making the composition process accessible to all: the Paris and Cologne studios were worked in by a select few, and funded by large radio stations.

Perhaps links between electronica and art music are closer when the work of the American composer Steve Reich is taken into account. Reich’s work in the 60s layered tape loops of short bursts of speech to create pieces such as ‘Come Out’ and ‘It’s Gonna Rain’. ‘Reich: Remixed’, a 1999 compilation of remixes in a contemporary techno vein (in its broader, more recent definition), features a variety of Reich’s works woven together by several DJs and integrated with new material such as drum tracks. Yet the sleeve notes recognise that the DJs are not necessarily familiar with Reich’s work: 

“only some of them know how much the world of mixing and re-mixing has to do with this man.” (Gordon 1998)

Reich’s interaction with other strands of contemporary music has arguably been more active than that of, say, Stockhausen. He was part of the New York experimental scene in the late 1970s, along with musicians such as Talking Heads and Sonic Youth, who many artists today cite as influences.

Conclusion

What emerges from this study is the very complex nature of cross-influences. They go beyond musical techniques, and involve cultural background and artistic vision. The exposure to and accessibility of such a wide range of music that characterises the contemporary music scene makes it increasingly difficult to argue in favour of any specific lineage.

The European avant-garde receive relatively little mention in commentary on techno and electronica, or from artists themselves. As the avant-garde’s influence, although undeniable, is merely one element of a broad range influences on techno and electronica, it can be concluded that limited reference to it is fair.

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